Storm Front - Chapter 20

The change of the guards took place smoothly on that particular afternoon in Minas Tirith. The weather, as it had been for the better part of a month, was sunny, dry, and very cold, and the leaving shift chuckled amongst themselves as their replacements manned the assigned posts. Unless some strange twist of weather occurred, the unfortunate men on the afternoon roster would suffer through another uncomfortable shift.

"I'd give my next month's pay for a good fire," mumbled one of the men, a new recruit set on gate watch. Releasing a heavy sigh, he shifted the heavy cloak of his uniform more securely around his shoulders. The breeze coming off the mountains was freezing.

"Look alive, soldier!" a voice called from the battlements above. "There are riders heading this way."

The soldier acknowledged his comrade's warning, then stepped out beyond the city gate, scanning the Pelennor for the riders. There were two horses fast approaching, but on closer examination, the soldier realized that the larger horse was carrying two people. And it would be near impossible for any citizen of the city to not recognize the second of the two.

"Master Gimli!" the soldier hailed as they neared. "Welcome back!"

The Dwarf nodded in reply, and the rider sitting in the saddle before him, a beautiful she-Elf with light blonde hair, smiled. The other rider had pulled up a little ways behind them. The soldier could tell that the rider was another female, but because her pale face was shaded by her long and wind-twisted hair, he could not recognize her.

"Soldier," Gimli said, to which he snapped back to attention. "Is King Elessar and Queen Arwen in residence?"

"No, my lord," the soldier replied. "They're on a state visit to Dol Amroth. I think, though, that they are scheduled to return any day now."

Gimli conversed quietly with the she-Elf for a moment, then turned towards the other woman.

"Well?" he asked. "Do you want to wait here, or continue on and meet them halfway?"

"Continue," the woman replied with no hesitation.

And, as the soldier watched with great bewilderment, the she-Elf and the woman turned their horses and galloped away, disappearing quickly into the shimmering afternoon sunlight. Slowly, the soldier stepped back inside the gate.

"What was that about?" his comrade from the battlements called.

The soldier shook his head, unable to think of a reply.

* * * * * *

"I wish you a safe journey home, my King and Queen."

Gandin swept off his hat and bowed solemnly. The long state visit to Dol Amroth had finally come to an end, and now the royal party was preparing to set out for Minas Tirith. Aragorn returned Gandin's bow with a nod.

"I will be sending an embassy every now and then to make sure the terms of the trails are being carried out," Aragorn added as he boosted himself onto his horse's back.

"They shall be, my King," Gandin replied.

Arwen, who had turned Canassa to listen to Gandin's farewell, exchanged a small smile with Legolas, who also stood nearby. The last of the trials had been that of Gandin himself, but due to the critical assistance he had provided the investigations, his only punishment was a fine against his plantation's harvests for the coming ten years. Gandin had also vowed to arrange a fund to provide for any former slave wishing to return to the lands of their birth. This, however, had been a plan founded by a council of the former slave owners also given lessened punishments due to cooperation and satisfactory reviews of their slaves' facilities.

It had been to Arwen's great surprise to learn, during the course of the visit, that a fair number of the captives had not wanted to leave their plantation homes, showing that for most, the situation had not been as grave as originally believed.

"And safe travels to you, Lady Eowyn and Lord Faramir," Gandin continued.

Arwen glanced over at them. As expected, Eowyn had given birth to their second child during the stay in Dol Amroth, this time a son, who was sharing his father's name. Faramir II was an energetic little boy, beloved by his elder sister, who had shown more delight than her own father at the news of his birth. At the moment, the babe was asleep, and being carried securely in a satchel strapped to Eowyn's torso. Likewise, Tinúviel was being carried in the same manner. Arwen glanced down at her daughter, who was busily sucking on her tiny fist. They had all been supplied with clothing and other necessities to protect against the chilly weather, including the babes. Both Tinúviel and little Faramir seemed completely comfortable.

The farewells were completed soon after, and within an hour the long trek back to Minas Tirith had begun. The terrain along the road was rather yellow and parched, for no rain had fallen for over a month, and the cold winds had scoured the land dry. Everything Arwen could see was in need of a good winter storm.

But the skies remained stubbornly blue and clear during the first few days of the journey. The pace had been set slow due to the presence of the children--Eomala and Eldarion as well as the babes--but the mood was easy, and there was little threat of danger. The relative low number of guards accompanying the royal party was a testament to the times.

It was in the early evening of the fourth day that a significant threat began to appear. To everyone's great surprise, dark clouds had rapidly begun to develop on the horizon, and even though the storm was many miles away, they could still hear the low echoes of thunder.

"A storm this late in the year?" Faramir commented.

"It is not unheard of," Legolas replied. "But I think we had better find shelter before it comes."

Luckily for them all, one of the guards knew the route very well, and quickly mentioned an inn not too far from where they were. Arwen sighed in relief. The approaching storm looked particularly fierce, and she did not feel like being caught out in it.

Sure enough, after about a mile, they came to a very tidy-looking inn built alongside the road. Not only was the inn itself quite handsome in appearance, but there was also a sturdy barn for the horses. Arwen could see Eldarion and Eomala grinning in excitement. One of the guards hailed a welcome, and instantly an older man and a young boy appeared.

"Welcome, my noble lords and ladies!" the man said jovially, his wide grin barely visible beneath his graying beard and large moustache. "I heard rumor you were in the area. Do you wish to stay the night?"

Before anyone could reply, however, a woman appeared at the doorway. Arwen guessed she was the innkeeper's wife.

"Enough with the chatting, Boric!" she barked. "That storm front is blowing up fast. Let them come inside."

The innkeeper, Boric, glanced back at the woman, then shrugged.

"She is right," he commented with a sigh. "Come in, come in. My wife and I will get you settled. Our stablehand here will see to your horses." He motioned towards the boy.

Boric offered a helping arm to Arwen, who accepted it with a gracious smile as she dismounted. Canassa snorted and shook her head as the boy took hold of the reins.

"I'll see you in the morning, girl," Arwen whispered, patting the horse's neck.

"And is that the lovely Princess Tinúviel?" Boric asked, smiling once again as he gazed at her sleeping daughter. "My wife will be fawning over her all night. She adores children."

Arwen smiled in reply, untying the satchel and gathering Tinuviel into her arms. She was almost a toddler now, and her increased weight had been a bit of a strain on Arwen's back the last few days. The baby roused, gazing up innocently, and reached out with her tiny hands to grasp the collar of Arwen's tunic.

"Beautiful," Boric said heartily.

The innkeeper's wife held the door open for them, and Arwen looked around with great interest. The room just inside the door appeared to be the largest, with the ceiling extending up to the raftered roof of the building. A wide sturdy staircase to the left led up to the second floor, and across from it, a ring of comfortable furniture had been placed around a wide stone hearth. The fire within the hearth was strong and bright, offering both light and warmth to the entire room. The wife passed, beckoning to them.

"There is a small nursery just down that hallway," she said, pointing. "You can bed your children down there after you have eaten. And do not worry," she added, for Eowyn seemed about to protest, "they will be perfectly comfortable there, and I'll be in the next room over should they get upset during the night."

Neither Eomala nor Eldarion seemed overly thrilled with the prospect of sleeping the night away from their parents, but the nursery turned out to be a place perfectly suited to occupy older children. And once the two of them had found the small chest of toys in a corner, Arwen knew that neither she nor Aragorn would have to worry about them.

"And don't you worry about that storm, either," the woman said to the children when Eomala gave a worried glance towards the darkening skies outside the window. "It will not last long, and I will be right here with you until it passes."

It was those words that seemed to convince Eowyn and Faramir that the children would be safe in the nursery. And Eomala, possibly charmed by the woman's warm smile, seemed to calm down considerably.

The woman, who had soon after introduced herself as Analyn, provided the party with a delicious meal of stew and warm, fresh bread. As it turned out, the inn was relatively empty that night. Analyn reassured them that this was a rare occasion.

"Normally, we have a fair number each night," she said as she refilled Faramir's wineglass. "Boric and I try to provide for anyone that comes through our doors, especially in the winter. We have never been overcrowded, though, which is also a blessing. More than enough income to keep this place comfortable for our guests."

"And we thank you for that," Arwen replied.

One of the guards gave a hearty agreement, which was then followed by a toast to the innkeeper and his wife.

"And many thanks to the Valar that we found this place," Legolas added as a particularly loud roll of thunder echoed. "For we do not have to be traveling in this night."

A little while later, Aragorn and Arwen settled Tinúviel and Eldarion into the nursery, and followed Boric up to their room. The fireplace was already lit, and the bed looked very comfortable.

"That is your washroom there," Boric said. "And that. . .oh, my apologies, my Lord and Lady. That door should not be open." He approached a small, narrow door next to the washroom door and pulled it shut. "That is the servant's stairwell. Leads down into the kitchen. I'll make sure nobody uses it tonight."

After bidding them goodnight, Boric departed. Arwen turned and put her arms around Aragorn, resting her head on his shoulder.

"I shall be sure to commend this inn when we return to Minas Tirith," Aragorn commented, returning the embrace. "But now, my love, we have the night to ourselves." Arwen smiled in reply, having long guessed what was on her beloved's mind.

And though both were tired and a little sore from the journey, and although they both retired to their bed soon after settling in, neither fell asleep for a very long while afterwards.

* * * * * *

The worst of the storm had already passed them over. Faye shook her head as she leaned forward a little more in the saddle, feeling the light, cold rain fall on her back and shoulders. Both Bill and Atego were being spurred to very fast canters, leaving trails of cloudy white behind them with their hot, fast breaths. Faye had not wanted to push the horses so fast, for the both of them were very weary from the long journey from Rivendell, but now they had no choice. They had been trying to reach an inn mentioned on an old road sign several miles back before the storm hit, but the fierce weather had overtaken them.

Faye had led Maida and Gimli to a copse of thick bushes during the worst of the storm, which consisted mostly of gale winds and heavy lightning, but that feeble shelter did nothing to protect them from the rain that followed. So it had been agreed that they should continue on to the inn, which offered not only shelter for them, but a much needed chance to rest for the horses.

"Not much farther now," she shouted back to Maida and Gimli, who were both hunched over with their cloaks tightly wrapped around them.

"I hope so!" Gimli shouted back. "What I would not give for a mug of ale and a good, roaring fire!"

* * * * * *

"You almost finished up in here, boy?" Boric called as he stepped into the barn, searching for his stablehand.

"Yes," the boy replied, his voice coming from a stall at the far end. Boric could see the light from his lantern.

Boric approached, glancing in to see the boy diligently brushing the white flank of Queen Arwen's horse, who was busily eating hay. The rest of the horses appeared already tended to, and he nodded his satisfaction.

"Well done," he said. "Get her finished up and come back inside. That storm is just about ready to hit." His words were echoed by a sharp crack of thunder. "And don't forget to bring in that lantern. The last thing we want in here is a fire."

The stablehand nodded, and Boric turned and left. The boy finished grooming the mare soon afterward, patting her softly.

"There you are, girl," he said. "Comfortable now?"

The mare only snorted in reply. The boy chuckled as he exited the stall, locking it and making sure her water bucket was full. Then, he turned and left the barn, closing the wide doors behind him. The lantern remained, still flickering on the wall. Canassa lifted her head, gazing at it curiously.

Then, the mare gave a start as the barn doors swung open again, and the boy came pelting back in. Though the thunder was still impressive, Boric's loud exclamation of "what did I tell you about that lantern, boy?!" could still be plainly heard. The boy quickly retrieved it and left, and with the closing of the door, a cool darkness fell. Canassa swished her tail and returned to her food.

And back inside the inn, Boric gave the stablehand an irritated slap on the shoulder as the boy passed by him through the kitchen door. Two guards who had witnessed it laughed quietly as the boy frowned in embarrassment and quickly retreated to the main parlor, where he deposited the lantern on a low table.

It was another hour more before the true worst of the storm came. By then, the inhabitants of the inn had gone to bed, and even the children had fallen asleep. Unknown to any, a tremendous crack of thunder shook the inn walls, causing a tiny wooden statue to fall off a shelf and strike the still burning lantern. The lantern fell from the table, breaking its glass shell on impact and spilling its little reserve of oil.

A few moments later, the dying flame from the wick flickered, and the oil on the floor caught fire.

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