The King displayed not the slightest sign of affront. At that moment he looked the most kingly I’d ever seen him.
“Badly. It’s no secret that the fierce love we felt for each other in the early days has paled in recent years. Then, we were inflamed with the ardour of victory, of terrors overcome, of hopes unhoped-for, sprung anew. Hopes for a future which in those darkest of days had seemed so very far away.”
He sighed sharply. “Well, the future is here. Now. It’s been delivered and signed-for. And it’s everything we expected it to be. Nothing is more corrosive of ardour. If only there had been more difficulties to surmount! If only things have not gone quite so well—new enemies had appeared—dangers threatened the Realm. That would have drawn us together again. Our love was forged in adversity—it has languished in peace and plenty.”
I allowed not the slightest trace of pity to appear on my face. I kept it strict and businesslike. I knew that was what he wanted.
“Did any rumour come to your ears of the Queen and Morfindel plotting against each other?”
“Oh yes. Plenty of people came to me with tales of the tensions between them. And I set my spies. But everybody was for taking sides. Nobody could I trust to tell me the truth dispassionately. Always I suspected that the speakers had personal interests in telling me the things they did.”
“But did the Queen and Morfindel actually make a move against each other? You appreciate why I ask…”
“Of course I do. I heard tales that Morfindel was trying to displace me in the Queen’s affections. Others would have it that he made haughty assumptions about what he supposed was the special relationship between them. The Queen on the other hand would pour out her complaints about him into my ear. But—perhaps it was because I did nothing—the complaints died away in frequency until she bothered me no more with them. I admit I was relieved. But ought I rather to have been alarmed? Because she was either bottling up her resentment, or pouring it out into others’ ears. Ears of others by whom she might indeed have been seeking redress.”
Gazing at the ground between his toes he seemed to be on the point of putting his foot on a spider, drawing back at the last moment. “But no! No actual plots ever came to my notice, of the one trying to unseat the other, or being revenged on the other. That is not to say there were none.”
“Her Majesty the Queen is a mighty lady,” I observed cautiously, “and she has powerful family connections. Did the possibility not occur to you, Sire, that she might respond tragically to your taking a catamite?”
I was trying not to provoke the King, but I could see he was beginning to wilt under my probing.
“How right I was to employ you, Goss! It is the hallmark of a good consultant to ask the obvious questions without beating about the bush. This is wisdom, the like of which I could not find in the whole of this city.”
He turned and leaned heavily on the balustrade. I came and leaned there too. Together we looked down upon the White Tree in the courtyard. Its branches were bare—but it could not be long before its buds were due to fatten and burst. A small knot of people had gathered in the courtyard. I could imagine them saying: “Lo! The King comes forth to take the mid-day air. But who is that with him?” Since my face was not well known in the City, the speculation would run rife.
Aragorn did not seem to care. He seemed oblivious of the audience.
“When I was a wild Ranger, with nobody to attend to my pleasures, my sole delight was to fix my thoughts upon my lady fair. It’s a different matter in the tedious comfort of the court. A king is expected to do whatever he likes—and there are plenty of people who will make haste to satisfy his wishes and whims, whatever those may be, and whatever they imagine them to be.”
He turned against the balustrade, leaning backwards. “But still it does not do to dally with the womenfolk of one’s loyal subjects. If there is one single rule a king must obey, that is it. Nothing breeds disloyalty and treachery faster. On the other hand, a king should surround himself by single young men, to counteract the weary wisdom of the old fogies who surround him by right of seniority. And young men will come, with the blessing of their fathers, to feed off his wisdom and experience.
“But what does a young man have to offer in return? His wit? His wisdom? The sort of young man whom it’s worth having around, whom you could send off to lead an army, quell an uprising, punish bandits, is not the sort who spends long afternoons cultivating courtly speech. You expect him to be good at manly sports, to be strong and enduring, to wield a good sword. And—by the White Tree!—you know me well, Goss, and where I come from. Am I the man to savour courtly speech?”
He sprang away from the balustrade and sighed. “No. Deep in my bosom I nurse a secret desire. To be once again scouring the countryside with my trusty Rangers. The soft life of the court grows irksome, as day follows weary day.
“And what has a young man got to offer me, which I would not seek in dalliance with a lady? Much. A catamite is dynastically safer than a leman. Whatever we may do together, there is absolutely no likelihood that in years to come a bastard will emerge from the backwoods, or a pretender arise on the borders, to come challenging the lawful sons of the throne.”
He stared at his toes. “Alas! If only Arwen and I were to have a son! A son would do much—do everything—to fill the gap in our lives. And the gap in the life of the Realm.”
I realised, the moment he said it, just what the motive may have been for Aragorn to take the son of Gollum under his protection, and from thence progressively into his most intimate confidence. It is every man’s urge to propagate himself. And for men who reside not so much in their bodies as in their minds, there is a more certain way than planting the seed of your body in the belly of a beautiful and blossoming young woman. It is to plant the seed of your mind in the head of a hale and hearty young man. Such a one, a disciple, tested and found true and enduring, may make a better heir than the issue of your own flesh. Was it this, rather than regal dalliance, that prompted Aragorn to surround himself with lively young men? And if people assumed the worst—was he the sort of man to care overmuch?
But he was certainly right about one thing. When choosing a close companion to while away long afternoons, a catamite is indeed dynastically safer than a mistress. A son, even a bastard son, owes his position to inalienable right. A catamite owes his purely to the royal whim.
And then another thought struck me. What is the doom of a catamite of whom his royal master grows weary? Or one who overplays his hand? And there was another doom, too, to enquire.
“What, may I ask, will be the fate of the murderer, when at last he… or she… is brought to justice?”
“Death,” replied the King. His voice was sad and final. “Death at the Stake. It is prescribed in the very foundations of the City.”
“But is there no provision for clemency, Sire? Supposing the killer had been provoked beyond endurance…?”
He shook his head slowly. “I formally took Morfindel under my royal protection. So whatever the provision for normal crimes of passion, killing a Ward of the King must be avenged by death. The doom is mandatory.”
“But you are the King, Sire…”
It was a stupid thing to say. I stumbled in my speech as I tried to make good. “I—I mean—the King himself can set aside any laws, surely? No council would oppose you…!”
“And send the message that the King’s protection counts for naught? That would be a grave step to take! And once the identity of the perpetrator became known, it would be too late to take it anyway. Men would say there is one law for the high and the mighty and another for the rest of the citizenry. It would drag the Ancient Law of Gondor in the dust. Not for that did I ascend the Marble Throne!”
“But it is a step you might yet contemplate, Sire, were the killer discovered ere the death of Morfindel be commonly known?”
It was a long time before an answer came. “I… have reached no such decision. The kings of old would slay their very sons for the meanest of transgressions. In that way they established the sacredness of the Ancient Law. In these latter days, some of the things they did would be viewed as harsh in the extreme. But in the end it all depends on what you and I live for, doesn’t it? Is the dynasty more important to preserve than the very fabric of the Realm?”
“Without the King—and his dynasty—who would there be to preserve the Realm for us?”
“But to strike at the roots of that which we have been elevated to preserve! How can we even contemplate such a thing—when in living memory the mightiest among us were poised to lay down their lives for its principles?”
“Sire! Any one of your loyal servants would cut off his own right arm for your sake!”
“No,” replied Aragorn. He spoke as if pronouncing sentence of death. “Say not: for my sake. Say rather: for the sake of the Realm. And am I not the chief of servants—the servant of all?”
I was speechless. What if the perpetrator turned out to be the Queen herself?
“And how indeed am I to preserve my dynasty,” he added, “when I have no heir of the flesh?”
Aragorn turned his head away sharply. I thought I glimpsed a tear in the corner of his eye. There was a catch in his voice as he spoke. “When this business is over I shall go away, for a very… long… holiday. Not to Imladris as old Bilbo did. I could never steel myself to face the sons of Elrond. And certainly not to Lórien’s fair glades, bright though they shine in my memory. The Galadhrim have gone away. Lórien is but a shadow of itself. One can never go back.”
He turned again towards me. “Maybe I shall go to Lake Evendim. It is beautiful there, and lonely…” I could see that a tear did indeed stain his cheek. “And maybe the Queen and I will be reconciled, and perhaps a son will follow…”
His voice tailed off. With a visible effort he composed himself.
“Yet I say this to you, Goswedriol son of Gandalf: I stand in dread of what you may uncover.”
…to be continued.