With thanks to Raksha and Virtuella
The Past is like a funeral gone by,
The Future comes like an unwelcome guest.- Sir Edmund William Gosse
Two Months Later
"The wheat harvest was substantial last year and we were able to fill twenty barns with the surplus. However, the barley harvest produced poor yields and as result the price almost doubled. I would recommend that the tariffs be reduced if the next harvest does not improve, providing that the increase in wheat does not offset the losses," the speaker droned on. "I have the exact figures here for the profits and losses."
Aragorn struggled to suppress a yawn and concentrate on what the man was saying. He stole a glance across at Faramir who appeared to be listening intently. He admired the Steward's patience for the tedium of occasions like this. Aragorn had never enjoyed numbers and calculations when in the schoolroom and age had not increased his liking for them. His mind wandered as the seemingly endless lists of accounts were read out. There was more than an hour before it was time for the midday meal. Aragorn only hoped he could stay awake until then.
"My lord King!" A young guard ran panting into the council chamber without bothering to knock.
"What is the reason for this interruption?" Aragorn could not quite hide the relief he felt at the disturbance.
"There is a dragon outside the city gates, sire!" the young soldier exclaimed, panic obvious in his voice. "We are fighting it as best we may, sire, but our weapons seem useless against it. It demands to see you, my lord, so most surely it seeks to devour us all!"
Aragorn leapt to his feet, as did his Steward. "I will come at once," he said. "The dragon must not be harmed. Lord Imrahil, the Council is yours." He had already reached the door when he spoke the last command. Grim faced and heedless of the long ceremonial robes he wore, he raced down towards the stables closely followed by Faramir.
Pushing past the startled head groom, Aragorn headed for Roheryn's stall and led out the great stallion.
"Shall I saddle him up for you, my lord?" the groom enquired.
"There is no time," Aragorn said, leaping astride the horse's back, thankful not for the first time that he had learned to ride Elven fashion.
As he galloped through the streets Aragorn noticed that people were milling hither and thither in a state of near panic. It seemed that news of the dragon's arrival had spread quickly. Twice he had to swerve to prevent Roheryn's hooves from striking scurrying citizens. His mind was in turmoil. Had a catastrophe befallen his kingdom that he could have prevented?
When he reached the gates, several terrified looking guards tried to stop him leaving the city. "You must not go out there, Lord King!" they cried. "The dragon might devour you!"
"Am I not your King?" Aragorn said sternly. "I take orders from no man! Now let me pass!"
"But, sire…" one protested, trying to grab hold of Aragorn's stallion's mane.
The King urged the warhorse forward, so that the guards in his path were forced to move aside. Once outside the city gates, a dreadful sight met his eyes.
The dragon, so friendly but a few weeks previously, was now reared on its hind legs and snarling, its ruff stiff and erect while its terrible teeth were bared for all to see. Many arrows were protruding from his hide, though he seemed to have taken no great hurt. At his feet lay a crumpled figure, which had also been shot with arrows.
From what they obviously judged to be a safe distance, the soldiers were drawing their bows and shooting more arrows towards the dragon, who twisted furiously to dodge them. Fortunately their fear of the creature seemed to have affected their aim adversely.
"Halt!" cried Aragorn. "Hold your fire!"
"We'll have the beast down soon, my lord," cried the Captain. "I've told my men to aim for its eyes."
"I told you to hold your fire," said Aragorn in a tone like ice. He leapt from Roheryn's back and calmly walked in front of the furious dragon.
The soldiers let out a collective gasp of dismay but held their fire.
"They are trying to kill me and my rider!" the dragon hissed angrily. "I asked to see the King of this place, but he has not been summoned. Can you find him for me, O son of Ilúvatar?"
"I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the Elessar, the King whom you seek," Aragorn said quietly.
"You!" The Dragon's eyes blazed angrily. "Why did you not say so when we met before. My rider is dying, shot by your men, and it is all your fault, you lying spawn of Morgoth!
The soldiers gasped at such an insult to their King. Aragorn bristled but forced himself to remain calm. "I am sorry," he said. "I swear I never meant for any harm to come to you or to your rider. I should have done more to protect you, but I did not. I shall try my utmost to make amends. First, let me care for your rider."
"No!" snarled the dragon. "You lied before! How do I know you will not lie again? You will take him from me to kill him!"
Aragorn heard another commotion in the background but did not look around. Suddenly Faramir appeared at his side on foot. "Please listen to the King," he begged. "Minas Tirith has many fine healers, the greatest of whom is the King himself."
"And you might you really be?" enquired the creature. "The son of that spawn of Morgoth?"
"The King is as a father to me," said Faramir. "But I am not of his blood. I am Faramir, son of Denethor and Steward of Gondor."
"Why did you not tell me that when we last met?" enquired the dragon, dropping down so that all four legs were on the ground.
"You never asked us for our names, neither did we enquire what you might be called," Faramir replied.
"I am called T'ien Li," said the creature.
"That is a very fine name," said Faramir. He decided not to further enrage the angry dragon by risking mispronouncing a name so strange to his ears. He had always picked up foreign tongues easily, but this sounded quite unlike anything he had ever heard before. "Now we have been properly introduced, please will you let your rider be cared for?"
"You will not hurt him, nor imprison him in your dungeons?" There was fear in T'ien Li's voice.
"You have my word that he will be treated as the honoured guest that he is," said Aragorn.
"If you shoot arrows into your guests I dread to think what you do to your enemies!" retorted the dragon.
"That should never have happened," said the King. "We will take your Rider to our Houses of Healing where will do everything we can to make him comfortable and heal his wounds. He cannot stay out here or he will most surely die!"
"He speaks the truth," said Faramir. "I stake my life upon his honour."
"Fetch a litter!" Aragorn ordered the soldiers and lay down your arms." He knelt beside the fallen Rider and was relieved when the outlander showed some sign of life by opening his eyes and groaning. The unfortunate man had an arrow embedded in his shoulder and another in his leg. His face was covered with grime and blood and he was a sorry sight indeed to behold. Aragorn felt his brow, which was already burning with fever. His pulse was weak and rapid, but at least Aragorn could detect no head or neck injuries during his cursory examination. Aragorn rose to his feet and pulled off the fur-trimmed robes that he had worn in the Council chamber, so that he was left simply clad in a shirt and breeches. He wrapped the discarded garments around the stricken man. "What is his name?" he enquired of the dragon.
"Fu Nung," the creature answered.
Two soldiers approached carrying a litter sparing Aragorn from trying to pronounce the name. "Bring it here," Aragorn ordered.
The two men crept forward with expressions on their faces, which suggested they expected to be devoured at any moment.
"And summon the horse healers to come and tend to the dragon here!" Aragorn commanded two of the most terrified looking guards, who immediately left to do his bidding, relief written large on their faces. With Faramir's assistance he lifted the injured man on to the litter and tucked the robes around him. "I wish to tend his wounds myself," he told Faramir and the dragon.
"I shall stay here and keep the dragon company," said Faramir, feeling it was the only way he could guarantee the creature's safety.
"Bear this man to the honoured guest's room in the Houses of Healing," Aragorn ordered. "I will follow you there shortly."
"Wait!" interrupted the dragon.
The soldiers hesitated, unsure whom to obey and decided on the dragon. Their lord may well be angry, but he would hardly eat them as the great beast might!
The dragon lowered his head to where his rider lay and said a few words in an unknown language. The rider mumbled something and his uninjured arm feebly caressed the dragon's nose, before falling back limply against his side.
"You may take him now," said T'ien Li. "Be sure you treat him kindly or you will face my wrath!"
The litter bearers scuttled away.
"Be careful not to jolt him!" Aragorn cried after them. He turned to Faramir "Are you certain you wish to remain here, ion nîn? The mood might well turn ugly! And where is Iavas?"
"They will listen to their Steward," Faramir said calmly. "As for Iavas, she refused to come near our friend here. Tin Li, though, will be the best bodyguard a man could hope for too. Put your heart at ease!"
"I will return as soon as I can." Aragorn squeezed Faramir's shoulder briefly then leapt upon Roheryn's back and made his way to the sixth circle. Once he glanced back and saw Faramir, a tiny speck in his black and white council robes against the dragon's vast bulk.