Lady Katherine led them down several more long halls, through secret passages, and up a long spiralling staircase. By the time that they reached the upper level of the castle, they were completely lost. The upper level was much more lavish, more opulent; and they sensed right away that this was were the important people stayed. She stopped in front of a pair of elaborately carved, gilded doors.
"These are my rooms.", she said motioning toward the doors. "If you should ever need to speak with me, you may find me here."
"Really?", Pippin said, smiling at her.
"You would do well to banish such thoughts gypsy. They may well get you killed. But, you are handsome, all of you. So I am inclined to forgive you much."
She led them further down the hall, pointing out the king's rooms as they passed. At the end of the long hall, she stopped before another pair of massive doors. These she flung open, motioning for the men to go inside.
They found themselves in a large room, unlike any they had seen. The walls were covered with fine tapestries, depicting the hunting of all manner of mythical beast. It was lavishly furnished with brocade couches and overstuffed chairs. And the ceilings were painted with chivalric scenes that Aragorn was rather sure were from the tales of this kingdoms heralded past.
"I see that your rooms please you then?", Lady Katherine asked, smiling.
"Yeah, this is great!", Merry said, walking around the room.
"Where are the beds?", Pippin asked, looking around.
"They are in the sleeping rooms of course. There are six of them here.", she answered, pointing out the six doors that encircled the room. "I will leave you to settle in. On the morrow we will begin preparation for the contest. I see that you have left your instruments behind in your world. That is no matter, I am certain to find some in one of the storerooms."
"Instruments?", Boromir asked.
"Yes, gypsy. Musical instruments. For the contest. What instruments do you play? Lute, lyre, drum, flute?", she replied.
"We don't actually play anything.", Boromir explained.
"You don't play anything? How can you be minstrels if you do not play anything?", Lady Katherine asked, somewhat perplexed.
"We never claimed to be minstrels, whatever the hell that is.", Boromir said angrily. "Well, I dare say that you should not claim to be musicians either, if you do not actually play music."
"Look lady, we didn't ask to come here; nor did we claim to be musicians. And we would be more than happy to leave."
Katherine took a step toward Boromir, anger flashing in her silver eyes.
"I may be inclined to forgive you much gypsy, but even I have my limits. I am fully aware of the circumstances of your presence here in Shalidar. Perhaps this was a very poor idea.", she said sighing. "I shall speak with the king, explain things. I will have you sent home at once. It was folly to think that this could work. You are obviously in no position to champion me in this. It will take real talent to defeat the king's musicians, I fear. And you were obviously the wrong choice."
Her eyes twinkled darkly, her plan already well set in motion.
"Hey, we have plenty of talent. We don't back down from a challenge that easily.", Merry jumped in, his competitive fire sparked; his pride wounded by her words.
"Yeah!", Pippin chimed in.
"Very well, perhaps we can make this work. It will take much hard work I fear, and only three days to prepare. But you seem confident, and ready to face the challenge. Yes, we shall give it a go. What do we have to loose?"
"Well, there is that thing about being dealt with accordingly.", Aragorn reminded her. "Do not fear, I know my brother all too well. Should you loose, you will be returned home to your world with all good gladness."
"And if we win?", Legolas asked.
"If you should win, you will be offered a place here in the court. You may accept or decline as is your wish. Should you decline, you will be returned home. Should you accept, you will be gauranteed a place in the royal court for as long as it pleases you. But the hour grows late, and there is much to be done on the morrow. But let me leave you with a warning.", she said; motioning for them to gather around her.
The five men gathered closer, concern evident on their faces. They feared that they were in way over there heads, and getting deeper by the moment. But Lady Katherine had said the right things, pushed the right buttons. They were determined to win, to prove their talent; no matter what the cost.
"There are rules and rules to follow gypsies, too many to recount here. But I will leave you with these; for they are the most important. Firstly, you must learn to hold your tongues. Within these rooms, I am willing to forgive you your lapses. But outside those doors, I am not. Here I am Katherine, out there I am Lady of Shalidar. You are not to speak unless spoken to. That is true of all courtiers, as well as myself and the king. Handmaidens are your equal here, and you may speak with them as you wish; so long as you are discreet. Servents and wenches are below you, and will not speak with you unless spoken to first. You may do so as it pleases you, so long as you are discreet. Do you understand?"
They all nodded to show their understanding, smiling at the the thought of doing as it pleased them. Merry immediately thought of Rahne, and what it might please him to do with her.
"Secondly, you must always bow to courtiers and the king. It does not have to be a grand sweeping bow. Nothing more than dropping you head, but it must be done. And the kissing of hands is always nice."
"Like this?", Legolas asked; taking her delicate hand in his and kissing the palm.
"The back of the hand. Although that was rather nice as well. But no, it must be the back of the hand.", she answered, smiling at him.
"Like this?", he asked, turning her hand over to kiss the back.
"Well met gypsy. Now, lastly; and this is of the utmost importance. Never eat or drink anything offered to you, unless it comes from myself, Rahne, or Meaghan. Rahne and Meaghan are my most trusted handmaidens, and will not betray me. I shall introduce you to Meaghan on the morrow. Do you understand?"
"Why?", Aragorn asked.
"It is not allowed. To eat or drink while in faery makes one captive forever. Tis a well known fact gypsy. I will have food and drink brought in from your world; safe for you to eat. You must remember this above all else; your freedom will depend on it. Do you understand."
They all nodded, looking warily at each other. They were beginning to fear that this might be more difficult than they thought.
"Very well. I must leave you now, for the hour has grown later still. I will send Rahne to wake you on the morrow. Until then, goodnight.", she said, leaving them to settle in.
"I don't know, perhaps we should have let her send us home.", Boromir said, throwing himself down on one of the couches.
"What?", Merry said, laughing. "Look around, this is great! Relax Boromir, what could possibly go wrong?"
Katherine knocked softly on the door to her brother's rooms, pressing her ear to the wood.
"Enter.", came a loud bellow from the other side.
"I am sorry for the hour my lord.", she said bowing slightly.
"Yes, yes.", he said waving her in. "You have our guests safely tucked away I presume?"
"Of course brother dear.", she said, sitting down in a chair opposite him.
"And the plan?"
"Working perfectly my lord. They suspect nothing. I told them that, were they to loose, they would be returned home with all good gladness."
"And should they win?", the king smirked.
"They would of course be offered a position at court. The choice to stay or go would then be their's to make. Should they choose to go, they would be returned home. Should they stay, they would have a place here so long as it pleased them.", Katherine answered, smiling wickedly.
"Such lies Lady Katherine, and told with such sincerity. Thou are truly of my blood.", he said; smiling broadly.
"As I said brother dear, I intend to win this game.
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