Animalia by sian22

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Story Notes:

A/N. Inspired by Graeme Base's wonderful bestiary Animalia, from which the title is taken. Some of the poem lines, depicted in italicized font, are based on Fangorn's fragment in The Two Towers (by J.R.R. Tolkien). Apologies for the liberal use (and misuse) of colons

"Aragorn, it is your turn." Beyond the rain-streaked windows the storm lashed and howled as great buckets of rain emptied down the sky and blessedly cut the midsummer's heat: its sound and fury only added to his consternation. Cursing not appropriate to the present company, the King ground his teeth and rued again losing the gamble on the forfeit.

Doubting his ability to perform and uncomfortably damp from the deluge, Aragorn hesitated and tried to collect his wits. Eying the room as he would have sized up the opposition in a skirmish, automatically the Ranger calculated the odds. Fifteen children, five fathers and one grandfather: he made it something less than three-to-one. Good odds really; great in fact if one were facing orcs, not restless and unsettled little ones confined to the library in a raging thunderstorm.

He shook his head and sighed mightily to himself, embarrassed by the thought of failing this simple test: simple except for the small and inconvenient detail of Faramir having chosen poetry. It should have come as no surprise that his Steward would have chosen what, after all, gave him the natural advantage.

"Just a moment, Faramir, shouldn't Eomer go next?" asked his liege, stalling for more time. Kings command sometimes and for a fraction of a second Aragorn flirted with the notion.

Luckily his Steward was a man of perspicacity whose adroitly raised eyebrow caused the King of Rohan to shrug good naturedly and grin. Marshalls and Eoreds of the Mark are widely famous for their store of epic off-colour verse and so, with no little relish, Eomer began an ode about a woman and a horse; deftly substituting words and concepts in keeping with their audience.

None of their elders, in retrospect, should have been surprised when the eldest boys (Elboron and Eldarion, their adolescent audacity heightened by their boredom) began to recite the original and snicker all the while.

Of course Prince Elfwine knew it too, but he at least (a little younger and therefore a little wiser) whispered the offending words more discretely to his cousin Theo. Princesses Finduilas and Eledwen of Ithilien and Gondor rolled their eyes and sighed mightily at the eternal hopelessness of bigger brothers.

Quiet followed the enthusiastic applause and so it was into this crystal vacuum of sound that Aragorn's cherubic middle daughter, blessed with her mother's elven hearing, asked in all innocence: "Ada what is a pintel*?"

Raking his son with an disgusted glare, the King did the only thing he could with half the audience under six: he lied.

"Stick, sweetheart; it means stick", he temporized, as Elphir and Rothos helplessly broke down and the others choked with laughter they strove mightily to suppress.

There came a sudden flash of light and thunderous crash; the littlest ones squealed and hid in warm and welcome shoulders as a new storm cell broke upon the hills outside.

Uncomfortable sitting crosslegged for so long, Aragorn switched his youngest Elianne to his other knee and shifted his pipe thoughtfully for the second time. Valar, what could he do? he wondered as sadly the 'Man in the Moon Who Came Down Too Soon' had been taken, leaving the audience in gleeful giggles and Imrahil thrilled with his delivery.

Wise to the fragility of their peace, his Steward sent an urgent thought: 'Stop stalling mellon nin, you are going to lose them.'

Xeric was the state of his imagination at that point, as parched of ideas as the fields had been of needed moisture before the tempest began its strident symphony. Yanked desperately from the depths of time, a memory of another young boy in trouble for his antics: Estel standing petrified in the Hall of Fire, reciting an ode before his kith and kin. Zircon could not be brighter than the relief Aragorn felt in that moment, blessing his foster-father for making him memorize those lines so long ago.

As the King of the Reunited Realm cleared his throat and began to speak, he cast a last quelling glance upon the elder boys.

'All learn now the lore of living creatures!

But first name the five, the free peoples:

Children of Eru; sang to being

Dwarf the delver, dark his houses:

Eldest of all, the elf-children;

Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;

Fair man the mortal, master of horses;

Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers

Give next the beasts: by name and nature

Hart horn-crownéd, hawk is swiftest,

Ibis still and jaegar soaring

Jackal is laughing, jaguar silent

Kine horn-graced, lynx black-tufted

Lark is singing, lizard leaping

Mumak tallest, magpie busy

Nuthatch building; mouse is hiding

Otter is playing; owl thinking

Parrot bright-plumed, possum banded

Quail is quiet, horse is faithful

Raven the darkest, rat the slinker

Swan the whitest, serpent coldest

Toad is croaking, tern is swooping

Uruk angry, tortoise tardy

Vole is delving, viper striking

Wolf the chieftain, whale is greatest

Xerus the climber; vulture hooded

Yak is woolly, dragon scaly

Zebra in grasslands; ass in paddock

Ant is busy, frog is singing

Beaver the builder, buck the leaper,
Bear bee-hunter, boar the fighter;

Crabain sneaky, cat is curious

Dolphin the playful, dove the quiet

Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,

Fox is canny, falcon flashing

Goat stands stubborn, gull is noisy

Hound is hungry, hare is fearful..."

Intent upon the words and gentle cadence of the endless list, Aragorn had not noticed that after some five minutes of continuous recitation the littlest ones (strategically stuffed full of honeycakes and milk) were fast asleep.

'Just what we were hoping for, praise Lorien!' he thought as he smiled and stilled; for a moment the only sound within the room was the quiet breathing and snuffling of dreaming children.

Keeping a firm hand upon Elphir's little son slumped across his shoulder, Faramir rose and gestured urgently to the other laden fathers. Lest they lose the quiet interlude within the storm, four princes and a king quickly followed suit, beating a careful, and carefully balanced, retreat.

Left to survey the battlefield, the King mulled the suddenly altered odds; ten children left, all over five and a lesson to be learned.

"My son? My squire?" he asked, rising to leave and with it gaining the eldest boys' anxious and undivided attention.

"Now it is your turn."

Chapter End Notes:

* Old English/Rohirric for a part of male anatomy.

Thank you so much to Annafan, Wheelrider and Adaneth for encouragement and critters.

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