Obviously there were some people who might not agree, but in Elboron's opinion, the fact that the fathers were friendly did not necessarily make the sons 'cousins'. Indeed, if there were any blood shared between him and Eldarion, it would likely have to be traced back to Elros, or even to the Three Houses of the Edain. It wasn't even like he was in need of new cousins. His mother had only one brother, and his father had none living, but the number of relatives on his father's side was frankly alarming. Anyways, if he had to adapt any more, he would rather have chosen Bergil and Borlas, the sons of Beregond.
But Eldarion was stubborn in a way only five-year-olds could be, and as soon as the King had spoken the words 'Elboron's father is as dear to me as a kinsman', which was just a manner of speaking, Eldarion had hugged him and said, 'Cousin!', slobbering all over his shirt.
Endearing. Absolutely endearing.
A few moments later, after their parents had left them together in the gardens and gone off for the matters of state, Elboron patiently explained to the High Prince what cousins were. It led to a question on what siblings were, then, and somehow spiraled into a question on half-brothers and second marriages, and before long Elboron found himself sitting in a sunny spot with the Prince's head on his lap, recounting the tale of the First Age. Eldarion was a surprisingly good listener, and seemed to already know much of history - but of course, his mother was the daughter of Elrond and grandchild to Earendil himself - so that Elboron rather enjoyed the afternoon more than he had expected.
Despite that, when his father had come to retrieve him and they were walking down the streets of Minas Tirith, Elboron asked to be allowed to continue with his lessons and practices the next day. His father did not seem to mind.
'I suppose it would have been rather dull, spending time with someone so young,' his father said. 'I'm sorry. It was thought that the princesses would be there as well, but the King tells me that there has been some incident with horses and now they are confined to their rooms.'
'Incident?' Elboron asked.
'With the princesses, the horses, the sons of Elrond and some visiting dwarves,' said Faramir. 'The King offered to explain. I did not truly wish to know.'
Elboron laughed. That certainly sounded like them. He had not seen the princesses for several years, not since Gondor had gained relative stability and his father had not been needed in the City for months at a time, but he still remembered the late-night raids on the kitchen. He contemplated what it might be like to have such sisters, and then forgot mostly about Eldarion.
However, when morning came and he was sparring with Borlas in a remote corner of the Sixth Circle, the Prince suddenly appeared, perched on a fence post. Elboron took a hit to his back in his haste to reach the child and get him down to the ground. Borlas, apologetic and bewildered, hurried to his side. Eldarion was a bit big for his age but the same could be said for Elboron, though he was more on the lanky side, and Elboron managed to hold the child in his arms just fine. But when he tried to set him down, Eldarion clutched at his hair and put his short arms around his neck. Poor Borlas was thoroughly confused. Elboron glanced around; Bergil was nowhere in sight.
'What are you doing here, my Prince?' he demanded to Eldarion. He could hear Borlas draw in a quick breath.
'You didn't come today,' said Eldarion, accusing, as if Elboron had committed some great infraction against the laws of Gondor.
Elboron mouthed to Borlas to go find his brother. He had no idea how Eldarion had gotten here, or whether he would be searched for, but he knew he definitely did not want to be there when Eldarion eventually ended up hurting himself. Borlas all but fled.
'I was busy,' Elboron said, in the meanwhile. 'I have to learn swordplay, and archery, and history and languages and all the rest.'
'Not all day, you don't,' Eldarion said.
'In six years your life will be filled with those, you'll see, your highness,' Elboron grumbled. 'Don't your sisters have them, too?'
Eldarion detached his face from Elboron's shoulder and shook his head. There was dirt on his cheeks and tear tracks ran on them. Disquieted, Elboron dug out a handkerchief and tried to wipe his face, then gave up and sat down, Eldarion on his lap. He began to hum softly, a tune that the Rangers of Ithilien often sang, not on march but after meals and drinks, and soon he was singing, and Eldarion was clapping along.
Several minutes passed by, and then Bergil rushed up, Peregrin Took on his heels, and because Eldarion would not let go of his hand, Elboron walked with him to the King's House.
'Have you ever thought it odd, how all these elves are so prepared to die?'
'Huh?' Eldarion mumbled. Across the desk Elboron smiled, and Eldarion felt absurdly happy. Three Summers since their first meeting, or at least, the one that he could remember, Elboron had once again returned to Minas Tirith, alone. He had almost come of age and his studies had pulled him towards Minas Tirith with its wealth of books and lore. Eldarion had greeted him enthusiastically.
'The elves of the Elder Days,' Elboron said, 'or rather, the elves of Gondolin, I should say, since not much record is left of other realms. All these lords and soldiers giving their life for their city without a second thought. But it's not like they were born in war, is it? Tirion beyond the Sundering Seas had been at peace for thousands of years. The lords, at least, would have been those born in the West.'
Elboron paused then, and Eldarion prodded him with his foot.
'Remember the Midsummer's Fete? Eldarion, we thought the men quaint, they who swore again their oaths of service with their eyes shining so bright. We thought, why are they so eager to pledge their lives away? And that must have been what those lords of Gondolin thought, when they were yet in Tirion, watching those from the Great March defer to the Noldoran. But half a thousand years later, there they are in Beleriand, fighting against an Enemy worse than ours for the sake of their King. What changed them? The Darkening of Valinor, perhaps. Or the Grinding Ice. But there is no way of knowing, is there?' Elboron sighed.
'I could ask Elladan for you,' Eldarion offered, because he'd gotten barely a tenth of what Elboron was talking about. 'He can go ask Glorfindel.'
The laughter came suddenly like a shower of rain, a tinkling, clear sound that was as infectious as it was fair. Eldarion laughed along, and Elboron managed to form a few words before he keeled over, something unintelligible but suspiciously similar to 'of course,' 'he would,' and 'stupid'. After a full minute they sobered.
'Well,' Elboron wheezed. 'Do remind me to ask the Lord Elladan, next time he visits. No need to trouble yourself. He seemed fond of me, and more of my name, though I cannot fathom why. Or I could ask Lord Glorfindel - a legend from the Elder Days, here on Middle-Earth under the light of the Sun!'
'What I don't understand is what they mean by 'the Elder Days',' Eldarion complained.
'Father says that the phrase used to be applied only to the First Age,' Elboron said. 'Then, after the War, they began to call all the Ages before ours that.'
'But it doesn't make sense,' said Eldarion. 'What am I supposed to think, when calling the Third Age 'Elder' feels like saying Alphros is ancient?'
Elboron snorted at that. Elboron's cousin of Dol Amroth had been born a few years before the Fall of the Enemy, and when they'd met him at Midsummer Alphros had tried to rub that in. Other than that he'd been fine, if a little bossy, but Eldarion was glad that he was gone.
'Alphros isn't ancient, and neither are my parents, nor yours. Yes, the Queen as well! She must be the youngest High-Elven lady on either sides of the Sea. The Ages before are called 'the Elder Days' because the Age of Men is come, and all the Elves are sailing West.'
'What about dwarves, or the wood-elves?' Eldarion asked. 'What's it like, in Ithilien, to share a land with figures out of the Elder Days?'
'You tell me, my Prince,' Elboron grinned. 'O great one-'
'Stop it!' Eldarion squealed, to his chagrin. He blushed furiously.
'Well, I am curious as to what it'd be like to serve a scion of the Eldar as my King,' said Elboron, casually turning over a page of his own book.
Eldarion stared at him, mute. Then he went back to the shelves, picked another book, and returned to his seat. He set it on the desk upright and peeked. Elboron seemed to have lost interest in the talk already.
There were times when he felt so very grown-up, as when he sat beside his parents at banquets and his father passed him a cup of wine, but Elboron made him feel like a toddling child. Proud, quick-witted Elboron, who could discuss past wars and battles for hours and hours with loremasters five times his age, who was more skilled at the bow than half his father's men, whose patience never frayed and whose voice never rose to a shout, no matter how much he may be annoyed inside. He'd grown nearly an inch in the few months he'd stayed in the City, though he'd claimed that Eldarion would be taller at the end, and wore his dark hair long like the elves of Ithilien.
Why Elboron even let Eldarion around him, he couldn't understand.
Still, that Summer and the following year, they spent much of their time huddled in the library, buried in this book or that, and at the end of his stay Elboron looked genuinely sorry to part with Eldarion. Elboron embraced him and promised to write, and though Eldarion suspected Elboron might forget about it, the promise didn't fail to cheer him up just the littlest bit.
Then the letters came, not from Ithilien as Eldarion had expected but by messengers from Rohan, sealed with plain green wax but signed with Elboron's orderly hand.
For the next few years the letters came and went, first from Edoras to Minas Tirith, then from far away beyond the Misty Mountains, one even from Imladris where Celeborn still dwelt, and from the Dale and Mirkwood. Then as Elboron travelled South the letters came from Belfalas and Lebennin. When they came from Harad Eldarion fretted, but Elboron blithely talked about the land and the clime, and the strange customs he'd encountered. When he came back to Minas Tirith by way of Ithilien he had a chest of books on his packhorse. Eldarion could not care less about that. He'd turned thirteen that year, and finally succeeded in tackling Elboron to the ground.
The Garden of Gondor was a beautiful place, though it had, for some short years, lain under the Enemy's sway. Eldarion privately had the impression that it was more beautiful for that. He'd heard stories, too, that both the former Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien and his son had divulged. He'd heard several about Damrod, who was leading him through a hunter's trail now. Keeping his voice down, Eldarion asked, 'Is it true you almost died for a tree?'
Damrod's hand made a sweeping motion, as if he had started off to shush Eldarion then thought otherwise of it. There was a self-conscious smile stretching his lips.
'Almost. Did Elboron tell you that?' Damrod said, and Eldarion nodded. It was diconcerting to hear the rangers refer casually to their lord's son, when all the servants of the Citadel were so meticulously polite to call Elboron 'my lord Prince', but also refreshing. More so because they called Faramir 'the Captain' half the time, and just 'Faramir' the rest. Some of them were surely too young to have really had Faramir as their Captain, but such was their way, and Eldarion had a sneaking suspicion that Elboron would be called the same, when he inherited his father's seat, whether he made it to captaincy before that or not.
But Elboron was too good a ranger not to do so, Eldarion thought, watching the boy - no, man - slip soundlessly in and out of cover. There was no need for much precaution, this was only a hunt, but Elboron did not do things by halves. And still he managed to shift in his tracks until he was right next to Damrod, and he was laughing, and it wasn't often that he laughed but most of it were in Eldarion's presence, that much he knew, and it would have been enough to make anyone giddy but sometimes it did make Eldarion feel like soaring.
'I did not do that good a telling of it,' Elboron said. 'Come on, I haven't heard this story for a while. Tell it again, for the Prince and for me?'
Damrod huffed, but when he spoke his voice was wistful and soft, recounting the deeds of his youth when Ithilien had been a battleground and its rangers closer than brothers.
'There was a place where the land had been razed to the ground, with some orc-filth covering it,' he said. 'We'd taken down some orcs near ther, and guessed that it was their doing, but there wasn't much we could do for that piece of our land. Nothing short of shaving a hand of earth from it would have done the trick, you see. And then, a year later, we found a sapling tree there. And my twin Diriel and I have always been fond of trees, so we decided we'd like to see her survive. We even took to calling the tree Will-a-Girl, which is practically nonsense, except it sounded better than Willow. Mablung and a few others started watching out for her, too, though the rest of the clearing around her had no life in it.
'That patch was left untroubled for some years after that. Three, four years later, I think, another band of orcs came scurrying down, and we were trying to trap them, when I realized we were instead driving them right towards WIll-a-Girl. The Captain, that is Faramir, he must have seen it too. I hadn't expected him to know about our tree, but of course he had, that's the sort of person he is. Anyways, he saw me tense and signed for me to stay in line, but I bolted straight through the orcs' band. I honestly don't know what I was thinking. I was in too much of a hurry to get to Will-a-Girl before the orcs did.
'By the will of Palurien, maybe, I got to the tree with hardly a nick. And I just stood there like a fool, spear in hand, standing before the willow. The orcs were running headlong at me. And then Faramir, bless him, cried out 'Charge, Damrod!'
'I charged. How could I not? They say Men do not have much might in their voices, but there's something to Faramir's that makes you listen. And to everyone's shock, the orcs ran away from me. Brilliant thinking on the Captain's part, making it look like an ambush was in place, when it was just me and the tree,' Damrod said, quietly chuckling. 'It's hilarious now, but was really quite frightening then, and I had to wash pots for a year after that.'
'Was it worth it?' Eldarion asked, eager.
'Ah, I don't know, my Prince. Will-a-Girl didn't make it out of the War. We found her burned to a stock, when we came back here after the Enemy fell,' Damrod said. 'But I suppose it counts, the defiance. Not letting the Enemy spoil everything good in the world. It used to count. I'm not so sure now, if I'd have risked my life for a tree, had I known that I might one day be walking in the meadows of Ithilien with my Captain's son and the Returned King's. Would I have traded it for a few years of a tree? I don't know.'
'It should count,' said Elboron. 'But I don't think it does.'
Eldarion glanced at him, the Sun's light dancing silver on his dark hair, the wind swirling the leaves around his feet. He wondered.
It was Winter, the first time Elboron went to the City by his father's orders. He was no longer a child, even by the count of the Dunedain, and more than able to represent Ithilien in its Prince's stead. But though his father had not told him much, and Elboron had not pressed, he knew that the armies of Gondor were on the move. Should the King ride away he would have to stand in for the Steward, as well. And it seemed likely to be so. Elfwine, his twice-cousin, had sent a frantic word not long ago, on something about being unprepared to rule while Eomer King was away.
The City was buzzing with activity as he walked through the Gates. There was a merchant who sold small throwing knives, and Elboron hesitated for a second. He'd realized, during his visits, that Eldarion's passion was more for the present than the past and the future, more for what lay just around him than what was written in the dusty tomes. His knowledge of the previous Ages mostly came from tales told by his mother's kin. Elboron had been slightly disappointed, and not a little moved, to learn that - among the Rangers of Ithilien he'd become used to thinking that a feigned enthusiasm was better than a lack of one.
He fingered the knife, half aware of the merchant eyeing his roadstained clothes and the hasty knot of hair. The carving on the grip looked almost dwarvish. It was not, then, for Eldarion, who for all his energetic personality seemed more elf than Man. He gave an apologetic smile to the merchant and moved on, leading his horse.
'The insolent wretch,' Bergil muttered.
'What, me?' Elboron asked, amused, at the older man. Bergil, an experienced soldier in his own right, had nonetheless volunteered to guard the young heir of his lord.
'The man with the knives,' said Bergil. 'Looking at you like you were some beggar in the streets.'
'If this is how beggars are treated in Minas Tirith, I must say that the City of Stone has mellowed indeed. Captain, if I'd wanted to be addressed as the Prince of Ithilien I would have worn the formal robes.'
'And braided your hair, too, thus denying me the pleasure of pulling it apart,' said a third voice.
A sharp tug came at the back of his head, and his hair flowed over his shoulders, reaching to the small of his back. Elboron whirled. There he was, Eldarion, taller now than him and even Bergil, playfully displaying a leather thong in his hand. Elboron swiped at it.
'Really, Eldarion?' Elboron groaned, and felt the impropriety of his words as soon as they'd left his lips. It no longer felt right to call the King's Heir by his name, the man standing where a child had once been, tall and comely. But, well, his hair-tie was between Eldarion's fingers, and Elboron supposed he could leave the courtesies for later.
'I need that! I must look like a madman with my hair loose,' he said, throwing up his hands. 'Give it back here!'
Eldarion snickered and ran, vanishing into the crowd. Exasperated, Elboron handed the reigns of his horse to Bergil, and chased after him.
Things were not quite that bright in the Council that night. Returning to the Steward's lodgings, Elboron rubbed the back of his neck, aching after so many documents to pore over. Then with a start he noticed Eldarion walking beside him, matching his strides, and looking down at him rather impishly. He realized that his hair had been undone again. He should have protested, should have grouched about teasing a tired friend, but he could not. Eldarion stopped, concern clouding his young face.
'What's wrong?' he asked softly.
'I don't know,' Elboron admitted. 'Or maybe, I do know. I know too well.'
Bergil was below in the lower levels, probably drinking with his friends in the Guard. And so, uncaring, Elboron said, 'I know my father is growing old. He has decades left, he is of the House of Hurin and a descendant of Mithrellas, but he is growing old. And my mother too. They're still hale, yes, but tonight I'd had to act in my father's shoes and I just can't help thinking that one day it will be for good, that I'll always have to be there in my father's place, without him ever calling me back home. It scares me.'
'Who says your home is Ithilien?' said Eldarion. 'They say that we Men are but Guests in Arda. Surely your parents will wait for you outside its circles.'
'So they say,' Elboron concurred. 'So they say.'
Perhaps it was he who had lost his love for lore, or at least his trust.
'Well,' Eldarion said awkwardly, in an attempt to brighten the mood, 'who knows? Your father's younger than mine. He might live longer.'
'Not likely,' Elboron laughed. 'What was it he said, at the end of the War? 'When those who are now in the wombs of women are born and have grown old, I too shall grow old.' No doubt he will live even longer than me...'
Trailing off, Elboron looked at Eldarion, and then looked hard. Lanterns lit the slender paved streets of the Citadel, and lanterns lit Eldarion's sharp features, distinctively Dunedain and yet so alike to the Queen, to the Queen's brothers, to the elves of Ithilien and the lands outside Gondor. Scion of the Eldar, pronounced his name, and its claim was just. Still, there was Men in him too, the Kings that Arnor had kept and Gondor had awaited for hundreds of years, regal and lordly.
Elboron bit his lip. Without another word he swooped past Eldarion, down the path to his lodgings, and though some part of him still clinging to conduct screamed in ill temper, he did not turn back.
I am staying in Belfalas for now. The weather is delightful, and the wind is perfect for sailing, according to Alphros. Elfwine has come to visit - he is my mother's brother-son, and my father's cousin Lothiriel's child, but you'd know that already. He reminds me of you, he's so merry. Good with horses, too, in a way other than yours and your sisters'.
I'm sorry this letter is rather short. I'd been riding for most of the past week, and there is nothing much to write about. I will likely be here for the remainder of the Summer, although I might move on to Lebennin sooner if Lord Amrothos continues to harrass me. Did you know that my father used to call him (and still does) 'little Amrothos', and his brother 'young Erchirion'? I think I must have told you before. He's trying to get a revenge by calling me 'little'. Erchirion has a more level head, thankfully.
You should send your letters to Dol Amroth, anyways. Alphros can pass them on should I leave for Lebennin. Tell me what happened to the hounds?
Eldarion made a valiant effort not to crumple the letter. It had been sent years before, and was one of the few sent from Elboron's travels that Eldarion still kept. Others he'd given back to Elboron who'd insisted that it would be interesting material. But by the Valar, Elboron could be infuriating. He had been purposefully cold to him since he'd pulled his hair free two times in a single day, but he could not imagine that the hair was the reason. Elboron was not so childish. And now he was gone again, to Ithilien or to wherever fancy took him, Eldarion supposed, with the King having returned.
It was rare for Elboron to stay in Minas Tirith for a length of time. It'd been clear from his arrival that Elboron had not come for a jaunt, but to rule Gondor in the absense of her King and and an adult Heir, and still Eldarion had hoped that they might get to have some actual talk. Elboron's letters had been often long and detailed, but Eldarion found it difficult to put his mind to paper. He wished Elboron would come back.
He remained depressed for months, and wrote as much as he could to Elboron. The replies, when they came, were curt. He did not accompany the Steward the next time he came, or the time after, and then Eldarion was of age and neither the Steward nor his son had any more need to come to the City - though Faramir still came while the King was away, always ready to help but reluctant to initiate anything. Eldarion couldn't remember how it had been with Elboron. He had not paid attention, truthfully, to his works with the Council.
'What's Elboron up to?' he asked, when Faramir was shuffling through the year's ledgers.
'Ranging,' Faramir said. 'There are yet fell creatures near Minas Ithil.'
'Isn't it dangerous?'
The Steward smiled, and Eldarion was struck by how similar he was to Elboron, grave and fair, save that the depth in his eyes had a much more personal quality to it. Why had he not seen it before? But then, it wasn't so long that Elboron had been old enough for the resemblance to be that plain. But there were lines etched on Faramir's face already, faint and almost unnoticable, but still there.
'Not any more. We haven't had a serious wound for nigh a year, and no deaths for far longer.'
'Oh, that's good,' said Eldarion. He couldn't think of anything more to say. He looked down at the report he was writing for his father, who was in Rohan for the time being, and saw that really, he had nothing to write, as well. Gondor was at peace.
Then Faramir glanced at him and said, 'If I may enquire, my Prince, I'd like to ask what had gone on between you and my son.'
Eldarion dropped his quill.
'Nothing!' he said loudly, which was technically true. 'I mean, well, I did tease him, and we talked, and...'
He trailed off, realizing that Elboron probably would not appreciate Eldarion repeating his worries to his father. But the said father simply smiled again and set back to his work. It was oddly disappointing. Eldarion returned to his report and thought what it might be like to one day never write such things at all, to be the one everyone reported to and have no one else to turn for orders. He hoped he'd have Elboron like his father had Faramir.
'He likes you a great deal,' Faramir said suddenly, and then Eldarion's bitterness flared.
'Please. He has loads of friends, he doesn't need a little boy clutching at his shirttail.'
Faramir visibly winced. Eldarion immediately regretted saying it. He stood up and strode out of the room, and without thinking, kept on walking he had somehow reached his chamber and was sprawled on the bed. Elboron's letter from Dol Amroth lay on the bedside table. He groaned. It'd been the only one Elboron had signed, with love.
But Elboron came to Minas Tirith the next year, and Eldarion pretended that nothing was wrong. He badgered Elboron on and on to spar with him, grumbled about Elboron's truncated hair, barely shoulder-length, and dragged him up to the roof of the King's House, insisting that the stars were beautiful. And Elboron was quick to step back into the old roles, laughing at his jokes and pretending exasperation. Faramir's visits to the City became less and less frequent, while Elboron seemed to grab every excuse to come to it, and keep in Eldarion's company. If anything, he was more friendly than ever.
He had to admit, it was nice to be around Eldarion. He and Elfwine shared the same boisterous character, but somehow Eldarion’s love for trouble did not bother Elboron as much, though he would not, could not, say that to Elfwine. Still, that did not mean that when Eldarion suggested breaking into the top of the Tower of Ecthelion in the dead of the night, Elboron did not try to persuade him out of it. Eventually he agreed that bullying the key out of the guardsman was a lesser evil than breaking the lock. Well, at least, if an accident happened, there would be someone who knew where they were and when.
They did not go up to the top, instead loitering near an open window placed at about two-thirds of its height. Eldarion pulled himself up to the ledge with all his usual grace, and then unceremoniously hitched a leg over it. Elboron did not bother to reprimand him.
‘Move over, I want to get up, too,’ he said.
Eldarion scooted until there was enough space for Elboron to climb on. The window was large enough that they could face each other, Eldarion dangling a foot on each side of it, Elboron sitting sideways with a leg folded on the ledge. The City stretched out below and beyond them. Even without much light, Elboron could see the Citadel and the Circles and the Field of Pelennor, all the way to Rammas Echor. The full Moon was halfway to its peak. Three hours until Midnight, Elboron guessed, and wondered if he’d be able to find the star of Earendil should he look out a Westward window. It had been some time since he’d studied the charts.
'Look over there,' Elboron said. 'How far can you see?'
'Far? I don't know. The Mountains stand in my way. But I can see Osgiliath, and Minas Ithil, though it's murky, and probably only thanks to the Moon. But why look so far? The Tower of the Setting Sun, our City is called, but it is as if the Sun has never set. Look, Elboron, the City's all alight!'
‘Half the lit buildings must be inns,’ Elboron said, but he was smiling.
‘Huh. We should have brought drinks. It’s cold up here, I hadn’t thought about this.’
‘Men are not meant to perch like birds, drunk or not, but especially not when drunk,’ said Elboron. ‘Not that that’s once stopped you.’
Eldarion snorted. ‘Men are not meant to spend entire days arguing over taxes and tithes, yet that is what we do.'
Elboron did not reply. Yes, Council did take up most of their time now, and he knew how Eldarion hated it. Eldarion had never been beyond the Misty Mountains, never been to Greenwood and the Iron Mountain, and never to Harad and Lhun where the stars were strange, and yet he dealed with those names on paper every day. The only son of the King was too valuable to be lost, and Eldarion had always been mature enough to acknowledge it, but it must chafe, sometimes.
At least Eldarion seemed relaxed now. He was humming to himself, an old tune that Elboron could not quite name, and his lips were gently curved upward. He looked genuinely happy, Elboron thought fondly, and not like a Prince at all. It was something he could appreciate. Then Eldarion spoke.
'How long do you think those Southrons will stay? I'm sick of hearing them squabble. And you must be doubly bored. Didn't you say this visit was a vacation?’
And there it was, despite the disgruntled words. Eldarion was worried, concerned, anxious over the Haradrim embassy, and it showed, and it showed in a way that made him look years older like the stone sculptures of the Argonath. Elboron sighed, wry.
‘I can help out, nonetheless. And don't say ‘Southrons’, it’s uncourteous.'
‘Southrons, I’ll call them, and they won’t hear it anyways. Always so proper, Elboron, don’t you ever get tired?‘
‘I correct your terms unceasingly. I call you by name. I’m sitting with you and I haven’t asked permission. How improper do you think one can be, my Prince?’ Elboron said, chuckling. ‘We’re lucky Hurin doesn’t know of this. He’d throw a fit.‘
‘Hurin of the Keys has nothing to do with us,’ Eldarion proclaimed solemnly, then smiled. ‘Thank you for your impropriety, Elboron.’
Elboron could say nothing to that. He glanced out the window, out to the East, and thought of his parents and siblings at Emyn Arnen. There was a strip of silver cutting through the black of the fields, that Elboron knew to be the Anduin, shining like spear-tips, and farther away, much farther away, lay what had once been Mordor. Nearly three decades had passed since a fire could be seen there, and still the land was black. He hoped that grass might grow there again, if not in the King’s reign then in Eldarion’s.
He almost opened his mouth to voice that hope, because it was a diversion, something to cut the awkwardness with, but when he turned to look at Eldarion he had shifted, leaning over Elboron, one knee on the ledge and the other hanging precariously off it, two hundred feet aboveground.
Eldarion reached out and cupped Elboron’s face with a hand, and Elboron could not move, could not push him away.
The kiss, when it came, was damp and gelid.
Eldarion felt the sting of Elboron's hand on his cheek. It wasn't a slap, Elboron was too much of a trained warrior for that, but a hard, bone-breaking punch. As soon as they were both back on the ground, outside the Tower and away from its sheer marble steps, Elboron had punched him in the face and fled. Eldarion, too stunned to follow, was still sitting where he had fallen.
He stood up. He didn't know how long it had been - a minute? an hour? half the night? an unfortunate inheritance from his mother's side, this tendency of blank moments - but the Moon was yet shining. He had to think. What should he do? Where was Elboron? Well of course, Eowyn's son was more than able to ride out into the dark of the night, and no gate-warden would dare hinder Faramir's heir. Eldarion began striding to the stables where the horses of the King's Messengers were kept. But where would Elboron ride to? Somewhere close, somewhere he could arrive at in a day's riding. If Elboron had ridden off in haste, he wouldn't have had provisions to spend another night on the road.
At the stables, it was corroborated that a horse had been let to Elboron some hours ago, and that it had been barely saddled before he jumped on and spurred it out to the streets. Eldarion took a horse, too, but walked it down the Circles to the city gate, painfully aware that he could not catch Elboron by speed. Dawn was already breaking. Elboron could be miles away. But he'd have to stop somewhere, and Eldarion had to find that place. Out on the field of Pelennor Eldarion climbed onto his horse, looked around and fancied he saw a speck of white to the East. Elboron had been wearing the white of the Stewards.
Eldarion rode over the bridge of Osgiliath and kept on the high road to Ithilien. He did not take the path to Emyn Arnen. Instead he turned North, and under the midday Sun headed to Henneth Annun. There was dread coiled at the bottom of his mind that ever grew as the horse trod on. His face hurt. His teeth were fine, thankfully, but the side of his face was swollen and hot. He probably deserved that.
And then, he found a brown gelding scuffing the earth near Henneth Annun. Someone seemed to have forced his way through the shrubs nearby. Eldarion got down from his horse and, after a whispered command to keep around, followed the tracks. They were confused and winding, and their owner had doubtlessly taken no care to hide them. Eldarion dared to hope. Perhaps Elboron had left them on purpose. But he had no idea where Elboron had gone to, or whether he had any weapon with him, and that was more worrying even than the absence of his sword and bow.
He stumbled, suddenly, as the undergrowth disappeared and the trees gave way to a large clearing. A blackened stump was the only thing in it, a bit off the center, besides Elboron himself.
'I considered going to Rohan, you know,' Elboron said quietly. His clothes were rumpled and stained, but he stood as stiffly as if he were in front of the Steward's chair in the Citadel. 'I couldn't. I couldn't have looked into Elfwine's eyes and said it was nothing, when he reads me so well. Pity. I did like it in Rohan, for all its lack of written material.
'I couldn't go to Belfalas, either. Not to Prince Imrahil. But what's left, then? Over the Hithaeglir? South to Harad? But how can I leave my parents like that? So I came here. Emyn Arnen I dared not, but Ithilien is fairly wide, and the Rangers do not come here often. So I came. So. Why did you?
'Why did you come, Eldarion?'
'To apologize,' he said. It sounded so inapt.
Elboron waved at him, like he'd wave at a confused page, urging him to speak.
'I'm sorry,' said Eldarion. 'I'm sorry I assumed...'
'That I might return your affection, is that it?' Elboron said. 'Fool. I do like you. You are dear to me. But I've decided, years ago, that I will not love you. And I wonder now at the fact that you did not see it, you to whom I have confided so much. What are you to me? What am I to you? I will not pledge my life to you. I will not be given the chance to. By the time you are crowned King I will be dead or doddering, and you only a man grown. And if I cannot be but a mere fraction of your life, well, you shall be such to me.'
'What?' Eldarion stuttered. 'That's your reason?'
'I do not love you. I am not physically attracted to you. You kissed me. Is that not reason enough to be offended?'
'Yes. Yes. But, you talk like you were, once. Like you did. That is, like you loved me.'
Elboron shrugged, and Eldarion saw that his eyes were cold. Eldarion was abruptly reminded of Denethor. Elboron stepped around the stump, up to him until he was mere inches away, and hissed; 'Call me whatever you want, craven, coward, or worse. It does not change the fact that to love you as you wish me to, I would be nothing to you, and to love you as I wish to, I would have to forfeit the whole of my life. It's just not worth it, don't you see?'
He was taller than Elboron by half a hand, but Elboron took him by his collar and pressed a fleeting kiss on his lips. Then he walked away from him, into the woods of Ithilien, and Eldarion was left dumb, again. Night was falling. It was a long way back to Minas Tirith, and he was dimly aware that he would be missed, and still Eldarion stood staring at the stump of a tree in a clearing in the Land of the Fountains. He sat down. The stars wheeled overhead. Gil-Estel rose and blinked out. Morning came, and still he sat, and stared.
He heard that Elboron had given his troth to one of Alphros's many cousins. His father had mentioned it at a private dinner, said that the official letter and an invitation to the wedding had come, and asked, in a horribly jesting manner, why Eldarion had said nothing of it. He'd excused himself without a word. As the wedding approached he grew more and more irritable, until his sisters were thoroughly sick of it and packed him off to Rohan. Elfwine's patience ran out more quickly, and soon he was trekking in the Fangorn, the woods so dark and void of animals. Thank goodness Elfwine was so carefree. By the time he returned to the City, Elboron's son was already born. He heard that the child had been named Barahir. He could guess what that child's son was meant to be.
Elboron still came to Minas Tirith, and was always scrupulously deferential to both the King and Eldarion. He objected whenever he could to Eldarion's opinions, his proposed policies, and once Eldarion overheard him telling Bergil, 'What are you fretting about? It's not like he'll ever become King in my time.' But he sent his son to be fostered in the City, by the household of the King, and although Eldarion was split on the matter, he ended up doting on the sweet boy. And young Barahir obviously felt stranded enough that he attached himself to the Prince with ardor. Eldarion could have hated Elboron for it. He couldn't.
The Queen took hold of him, when he was on his way back from a meeting. Elboron bowed and said the formal words. She looked no different from her kin in Ithilien, ageless and beautiful, and he tried to empty his mind.
But the Queen said, 'Lord Elboron, I would speak with you in private.'
He followed her to a secluded garden, and stopped a polite few paces from her. Arwen sat down on a bench. Elboron remained upright. A sort of cordial silence passed between them. Elboron felt unusually nervous. Arwen inquired about his mother's health, and the rest of his families'. Elboron asked much the same.
'It's rather quiet without half my girls,' she said. 'But I will get used to it, I deem. I shall have to. Your son's presence is welcome, though. Eldarion is very fond of him.'
'I am glad to hear it, my lady,' he said.
'But he misses you,' she said, and he did not dare request a clarification. He did not want to know. She added, 'You are unfairly hard on him.'
'It would be harder to act otherwise.'
'Would it be harder than feigning rebelliousness while raising a loyal vassal? You have an odd concept of difficulty, Lord Elboron. Would it not be easier to reclaim your friend?' Arwen asked, then shook her head. 'But no, the proud scion of Denethor would not do that.'
'I am Faramir's son,' said Elboron, indignant. 'And I will not choose the path that seems well, but ends in a bluff. Better to walk through brambles.'
She looked at him, and he glared back, feeling like a child once more like he had not for a good while, and finally said, 'You weren't the one who made the choice, my lady, no matter what the stories might say. The King was. And what is left to you, I wonder, now that you are truly bound to him?'
'I remember when you were not so quick to presume,' the Queen said mildly. 'Thank you for your time, Lord Elboron.'
Elboron knew that he was dismissed. He moved to leave, but on a sudden thought, turned.
'Why now?' he demanded. 'Why do you tell me this now, when so many years have gone by?'
Her answer to that, her smile, was a sad one.
'Fare you well, Lord Steward,' she said, and he seethed. His father had died a week ago.
And the years marched on.
Eldarion, full-ripe for kingship, ascended to the throne after his father's death. He accompanied his mother to the Gates of the City, and at her insistence went no farther than that. He embraced her, stepped back, and watched his own children say goodbye. His sisters would ride with her as far as Rammas Echor. He watched them go, the woman not yet weary of her days and her daughters.
He turned away when they had gone somewhat less than halfway to the gates. Slowly he climbed up the winding path to the Citadel. Barahir was waiting for him there, holding the white rod.
'My King,' said Barahir, and bowed in greeting. His hair was long and dark, light dancing silver on it. The White Tower soared behind his back.
Eldarion could have wept.