When the four children, two boys and two girls, were first escorted into one of the elegantly appointed booths of the nobility to watch the Yuletide Honors, in the company of the Seneschal Dinair, they were observed by many strangers quite favorable. Any number of onlookers nodded to one another knowingly and pointed, whispering to their own children, “THOSE are the children of House Palaniel. See the green and black crests upon their shoulders? You can tell they are of high birth just by noting their dignity and serious bearing. These are children who bring honor to the White City, not like you and your good for nothing brother…”
However, once the drapes were closed behind them and after several long winded speeches of welcome, and a performance by a choir of singing dwarves who appeared to call themselves “The Half-tones”, and a few more even longer winded speeches about bravery and sacrifice, and a dance performance which according to the title was meant to depict “The spirit of Winter blessing the harvest to come” but mainly looked like people jumping around in bear costumes, the children were far less dignified.
The eldest of the two girls, long golden hair drawn up into an intricate style that had now partially fallen, was leaning over the banister down towards the stage, just as the last bear bowed. She was 14 years of age and considered herself in every way the Lady of her house in her Mother's absence. “That was quite inane. Lady Farqual’s Dance Ensemble did much better and we did not require any silly fur suits.”
Her younger sister by a year, watching the stage from beside her, frowned and shook her brunette hair. “You only say that because you were the one playing Nienna…and I disagree.”
Larol, eldest daughter of Arne, Margrave Palaniel looked outraged, her bright blue eyes flashing. “Lianna…you DISAGREE! You mean we were NOT better? You take that back or I will bash you!”
Lianna smirked to herself. “No, you actually were better, that bunch was quite provincial. What I disagree about is that you didn’t require silly fur suits. That would have been smashing. You'd have looked like a poodle.”
The blonde girl bit her lip hard and pulled back a fist. “Poodle?...Ooooohhhhh....Now you ARE getting bashed, Leia…”
The younger of the boys, about the same age as Lianne, raven hair already cut in the severe manner of a Gondorian military academy, stepped between them. “Stop it you two or I will tell Uncle Arne you were fighting again. You are missing the best part, they just sounded the trumpet call of the Steward’s arrival. Now hush…”
Larol turned back to the banister eagerly, forgetting the promised bashing. “Oh Gar…can you see him yet? Father always looks so handsome at these events…regal.”
The fourth child, a strikingly handsome flaxen haired boy and the eldest of the four, stood somewhat off to one side, peering with interest down at the stage. “The Margrave makes a point of being regal, as Gondor has no king. Someone must be the glass of fashion, why not him?”
Lianne looked across at the handsome boy and scowled, “Septimal, when you call him “The Margrave” instead of Father you sound pretentious…and like you think you are better than we are. It isn’t very attractive.”
The Seneschal stepped forward and urged the four children into their seats. “There there Miss Lianna, Master Septimal is quite correct. Though he has been acknowledged, he is still a twilight son, born with a registered mistress and not the Margravine. It would not be seemly for him to call the Margrave "Father" in such an informal way."
Lianna sulked for a moment. “Does everything have to be “seemly”, Dinair? It seems like a great deal of fuss over something stupid.”
If the servant had been intending to respond, the moment was lost as the trumpets rang out again and Larol lept out of her seat, trying to be heard over the din and the applause and waving in a very unladylike way. “OH THERE HE IS…just behind the Steward. FATHER…FATHER!!!”
The elderly Steward, Ecthelion, had made his way slowly onto stage, supported and escorted by his son, Denathor. An appreciative murmur went through the crowd, not only out of respect for the effort it took the 97 year old Steward to attend what, unbeknownst to any, would prove to be his last Yuletide Honours, but in approval of a son’s dutiful and loving attentions upon the aged man. Denathor was considered to be a man of great intellect and honor, and would make a fine Steward when his time came.
Behind the Steward were the assembled nobles of Minas Tirith, including the Margrave Palaniel who did indeed look quite regal, a vital man in his prime, dark of hair and keen of eye. Despite his high station and the import and tradition of the moment, he raised one hand in a small gesture to his golden haired daughter, who squealed with rapture. Lianne tried to look stern but smiled, pleased to see her sister so overjoyed.
The dark haired boy, Gareth, watched his uncle the Margrave with fond respect, but a bit of sorrow as well, finally looking away to keep from tearing up. The last Yuletide Honors he had attended, his own father had been on stage beside his brother the Margrave. Since his death Arne had been quite kind and supportive of his nephew, but the loss was still raw and bitter for the young cadet. Noting his expression, both girls quieted out of respect. Though they were cousins, they had grown up with young Gar and they too missed their Uncle Rael. Such were the brutal realities of wartime.
Septimal cleared his throat to break the mood. “The heroes are coming on stage now, this year’s recipients of the Sash of Vorondil.”
Gar nodded….whispering half to himself. “For extraordinary and unique service to Minas Tirith and the People of Gondor in the face of mortal danger and incomprehensible peril…Father always dreamed of wearing one someday. Now that must fall to me.”
Larol frowned then forced herself to giggle brightly and hugged her cousin, seeming to still be a bit giddy from being acknowledged by the Margrave. “Just one? Silly, you’ll win two, easily, and I shall have 7…one for each day of the week!” She looked back to the procession of a dozen armored knights and warriors of the White City as they knealt before the Steward and tilted her head, pointing. “Wait, what’s wrong with that one….”
Lianne frowned. “The one with one arm? That is Sir Thorial, he lost the arm and more in the Battle of Arn Scaral where he earned the sash. He is a relation of a girl in my class so don't be a turd, Lala.”
“No Leia…the little one near the end…” Larol pointed at a knight who was noticeable smaller than the others, men and woman alike. In addition, their armor was in the style of the Swan Knights of Dol Amorth and not the men of Minas Tirith. As the knights removed their helmets in unison, both girls gasped as her pointed ears were displayed. “An elf! An elf shall bear the Sash of Vorondil?” Larol exclaimed.
Gareth shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. As days grow darker it is good to see the old alliance still holds.”
As the elven knight held her helmet under one arm, the hilt of a massive great sword jutted out above one shoulder. The knights on either side of her were careful not to look at her, and keep their distance from her as if she carried the plague. The gap in the line of knights was embarrassingly noticeable.
“Why are they doing that?” asked Gareth, his voice growing cross. “Such scorn for our allies is not appropriate or honorable for a Knight of the Companies.”
Septimal put a hand on his twilight cousin’s shoulder. “It isn’t her ears, it’s her blade...and her reputation. That is Xandilif, the Champion of the Azure Faithful. She is a Swan Knight from Dol Amroth and well-known as a Corsair fighter, among other things. I heard the Marg....Father...discussing her. She seems to have been somewhat notorious, even before the Battle of Caerfella.”
Gar sucked in his breath. “The Last Lion? They say she and her cursed blade left her company victorious…but all dead. Only she walked away. It is a matter of great controversy at the academy. To give her such an honor, I suppose the Council are making a statement.”
Lianne nodded. “The only statement they CAN make. If it weren’t for the Argent Lions and this elf champion, the Caerfella Gap would have fallen and we would all be brushing up on conjugating our orcish verbs now. No one knows exactly what happened, but she, and the Lions, are heroes unless someone can prove differently. For the council to say otherwise would have quite a negative effect on morale.”
As the four spoke, the aged Steward draped the red sash across Xandilif’s shoulder and a quiet, rustling consternation moved through the crowd. There was some applause, but not as loud or earnest as had been heard for the other knights being honored. One voice near the back of the hall called out "Demon!" but was quickly shushed. Clearly this honor was not popular with all of Minas Tirith.
Xandilif saluted the Steward and his son, but did not raise her hands in salute to the crowd as the others had. Instead she glared out into the stands defiantly, her eyes proud and angry…and haunted.
Lianne shuddered. “I don’t know what happened in that battle, but it clearly wasn’t pleasant…nor natural. She looks like a wraith.”
Her sister nodded agreement, blonde hair now come entirely out of the intricate style and cascading down her back. “I heard she is an exile from Rivendell, that she personally insulted Lord Elrond Halfelven to his face, and is the personal soldier of Lothiriel in Dol Amroth. Whoever that little priss wants beat up, she sends her elf.”
Dinair cleared his throat. “Miss Larol, a proper young lady of station refers to her as “Blood Royal”, do they not?”
Larol smirked. “I suppose they do, but it is just like the little priss, Blood Royal, not to fight her own battles, however she is referred to.” Septimal Caine laughed, and quickly swallowed it as Larol smirked in triumph. To make her twilight brother honestly laugh was no mean feat.
The crowd grew silent as Denathor took to the podium to thank the knights for their heroism, and the crowd for their attendance in his father’s name. The fact that Ecthelion did not speak was viewed as a bad sign regarding his health and left a pall over the crowd, fearing for the health of their beloved Steward.
As the four gathered their belongings and prepared to go to meet the Margrave at the reception, each bearing a small Yule sweet and blessing card for him as was tradition, Gareth looked back to the stage. The knights had departed with the Steward and the nobles to receive the accolades of the crowd, all except the elf. She remained silently on stage and carefully slipped the Sash off her shoulder as if she could bear to wear it no longer. There was no disrespect in the gesture, but a kind of somber, bitter reverence that young Gareth could not understand. She folded the Sash, tucked it into her armor, and made her way out once the crowd had thinned enough for her to do so in relative solitude, drawing a hooded cloak over her armor to effectively disappear.
Pondering what he had seen, Gareth hurried after his cousins putting dark thoughts behind him, his serious nature was not above being affected by the promise of Yule gifts and treats.