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Swan Song  by Conquistadora

"Also to be Prince of Ithilien, the greatest noble after Dol Amroth in the revived Numenorean state of Gondor, soon to be of imperial power and prestige, was not a 'market-garden job' as you term it. Until much had been done by the restored king, the P. of Ithilien would be the resident march-warden of Gondor, in its main eastward outpost - and also would have many duties in rehabilitating the lost territory, and clearing it of outlaws and orc-remnants, not to speak of the dreadful vale of Minas Ithil (Morgul). I did not, naturally, go into details about the way in which Aragorn, as King of Gondor, would govern the realm. But it was made clear that there was much fighting and in the earlier years of A.'s reign expeditions against enemies in the East. The chief commanders, under the King, would be Faramir and Imrahil; and one of these would normally remain a military commander at home in the King's absence."

Letter 244, The letters of JRR Tolkien

Imrahil leaned back and closed his eyes, allowing his body to float in the warm water.  Although his days were not so stressful as they had been five years ago, he still enjoyed the comforts of his private bath, especially with the grey winter lingering outside.  The water was infused with invigorating oils and salts, new luxuries afforded by the Rhûnish caravans which had resumed trade with the west.  

His only complaint was that his lady love was not present to join him.  After several months visiting their daughter in Rohan, Nerdanel was due back in a matter of hours, a thought which made him giddy with anticipation even after all their years together.  If all went as planned, she would be arriving with an intriguing royal escort from the far reaches of the north.

This new era of peace had fundamentally changed the world as they had known it.  Many things which had lain hidden for centuries were now drawn to King Elessar’s Gondor, many wondrous races and people who had been almost forgotten or entirely unknown in the south.  It was an incredible thing to witness.  It was legend brought to life.  This had never been so evident as it would be the following month at the new year’s festival Elessar had envisioned.

Imrahil’s musings were interrupted by a knock at the door.

“It is I, father,” came the voice of Elphir, his eldest son.

“Come in.”

Elphir entered the bath room, his dark hair bound in a ponytail with a simple leather knot, a stack of dispatches in his hand.

“Is it anything interesting?” Imrahil asked casually, getting right to the point.

“Receipts from the wharf for the purchases for the banquet tonight.”

“The damage is not too great, I hope.”

“Nothing we cannot weather,” Elphir assured him.  “However, I have a message from the Albatross; apparently Captain Azruben and his crew managed to spear an outsized shark, and want to know if we wish to buy a portion for this evening.”

“We’ll have it whole; it would not be a feast without smoked shark.”  The head would be especially impressive as a table dressing.

“He is asking twice the market price, father,” Elphir warned him.

Imrahil’s pleasant expression became a baleful frown.  “That man would cheat even the Valar themselves,” he said.  “He knows we cannot but accept, considering the mighty guests we are entertaining tonight.  Give the rogue his price, but let it be known we will be seeking our shark from other sources in future.”


“Are all the other preparations underway?” Imrahil asked.  His bath water was becoming tepid, and it was time to get on with the important business of the day. 

“The guest rooms are prepared,” Elphir assured him.  

“See that each is stocked with extra firewood.  We may yet have snow today.”

“Already done, sir.  The hall is being decked as we speak, and the kitchens will have their best clam stew standing ready when they arrive, by your request.”

Imrahil nodded, satisfied.  “There is nothing better after a cold ride from Edhelond,” he said.  “See that there are hot baths prepared as well.”

Elphir smiled.  “Stop fussing, father,” he said.  “We have not forgotten our manners.”

Imrahil sighed and returned the smile as he climbed out of the bath and wrapped himself in a towel.  “Bear with me, son,” he said.  “We must all show our best faces today.”

Elphir left him to continue overseeing the palace preparations and Imrahil retired to his chambers to dress.  He chose a tunic and cloak of heraldic blue and white with delicate silver embroidery.  Ciryon, his manservant, stood quietly by with a simple silver diadem bearing a single perfect pearl.  

“Thank you,” Imrahil said distractedly as Ciryon set the diadem on his brow.  The reflection which gazed back at him was aging, but still hale and proud.  The War of the Ring was now six years past, and in the midst of their miraculous victory life had never seemed so good.  

There was little left for him to do but wait.  Pacing through the vaulted terraces of their cliffside palace, Imrahil gazed out at the dark sea far below, anticipating the coming holiday.  This year the annual victory feast at Cormallen would rival even Elessar’s coronation for splendor.  Money was flowing freely all throughout Gondor as the hoards of Mordor were emptied, and no expense had been spared.  Practically all the victorious peoples of Middle-earth had been invited, and the response had been enthusiastic.  Traveling parties had already been arriving in Gondor for weeks from all corners of the reunited kingdom and beyond.  

Just as thin flurries of snowflakes began swirling in the wind, the silver trumpets sounded at the gates of the city.  From his balcony high above the streets, Imrahil could make out the small party of travelers riding behind an escort of Swan Knights.  Besides his beloved Nerdanel on her dappled mare, one of their guests was well known to him, and he could not help but smile at the familiar figure of Legolas the Elf on his beloved Rohirric stallion.  The other was a welcome stranger, and the sight of him filled the Prince of Dol Amroth with some measure of childlike excitement.

Imrahil descended through the heart of the palace to the front doors with purposeful strides, stepping out into the cold to take his place at the top of the grand stairway with his sons and the attendants of his household.  The frosty wind whipped the banners along the causeway into a frenzy, but the ranks of Swan Knights on either side stood as immovable as stone.

Amrothos, his third son, appeared at his side, panting after a brief sprint through corridor.  “Do you think he will be anything like the old stories say he is?” he asked with a wry smile.

“I think it might be best not to mention the old stories at all,” Imrahil replied, remembering how those tales had paled in comparison to the Lords of Rivendell and Lórien when they had appeared in Gondor six years ago.  Now even they had gone forever from the world of Men, leaving only one, the last Elven king in Middle-earth.

“Nerdanel, Princess of Belfalas and Lady of Dol Amroth,” the herald announced as the party dismounted.  “Legolas, Prince of Ithilien, of the Nine Walkers of the Fellowship of the Ring.  And Thranduil, Elvenking in the North of Eryn Lasgalen.”

Though he was announced last, Thranduil led the party as they climbed the stairs, followed closely by his companions and an honor guard of six Elves.  He wore a sturdy but richly embroidered green tunic, a great wine-red cloak and a fearsome-looking wolf pelt on his shoulders.  He was at once strange and familiar, as jarringly blond as Legolas.  The air of danger about him was certainly less subtle than it had been around the other great Elven Lords, but any apprehension Imrahil may have felt was immediately dispelled by a smile so warm it banished even the cold for a moment.

“Hail and welcome to Dol Amroth, my lord!” Imrahil greeted him with a decorous nod of his head.  “I only wish the weather might have been more hospitable.”

“Nothing could dampen my spirits today, Lord Imrahil,” Thranduil insisted, returning the formal nod before grasping his hand in a much more personable fashion.  “Dol Amroth is well worth seeing even in the worst of weather.  These, I assume, are your sons.”

“Indeed,” Imrahil said, finding his enthusiasm infectious.  “Elphir, my eldest, Erchirion, and Amrothos.”

The Elvenking nodded, a casual approval that still felt more sincere than mere pleasantry.  “Three fine young men of whom their mother has told me a great deal.  I hope we shall soon become better acquainted.”

“Nothing would please us more,” Imrahil assured him.  “Legolas, welcome to you, as always!  I trust the road from Edoras was not too taxing.”

“Not at all,” Legolas smiled as Nerdanel left his side to rejoin her husband.  “You see, we have returned your lady wife, safe and sound.”

“Our thanks to you all,” Nerdanel smiled, taking Imrahil’s arm.  “And now, if I am not mistaken, my lord husband has undoubtedly prepared some refreshment for you and will not detain you a moment longer in this wind.”

“Yes, please come inside, my lords,” Imrahil said.  At a wave of his hand the heavy doors were swung wide.  Grooms appeared to take charge of the horses.  “Consider our home as your own.”

He could not help but feel a swell of pride as the small entourage entered the grand reception hall with its gilded ceilings and long staircases.  Everything was polished to perfection.  Ancient royalty was walking his elaborately tiled floors, and they were irreproachably clean.  Elphir had done well.  

“If you will forgive us our enthusiasm, my lords,” Imrahil apologized, “we have arranged a welcome banquet for you here tonight.  I trust a few hours will be enough for you to refresh yourselves.”

“Quite,” Thranduil assured him, plainly accustomed to speaking for the group.  

“Excellent.  Amrothos will show you to your quarters.”

As his guests were let to their rooms, Imrahil turned once again to his wife.  She looked a bit travel worn, but certainly none the worse for it.  “I expect you are in want of some refreshment yourself,” he said.

“I expect no less, my lord,” she said in a playfully haughty voice.  “What glorious luxuries have you prepared for me?”

“Only the best for you, my love.”  Imrahil cradled her strong but slender form in his arm.  “Come with me.”

They retired together to their private chambers.  Imrahil dismissed Ciryon and Nerdanel’s handmaids, intending to enjoy these fleeting moments of intimacy before the evening truly began.

“How fares our daughter and her young family?” he asked when they were alone.

“Your daughter has gone completely native,” Nerdanel informed him, as she began releasing the elegantly tooled clasps of her soiled traveling gown.  “You know what a struggle it was at first, but Lothíriel was not overstating the truth when she wrote that she now adores all things Rohirric.  Your grandaughter is naught but two years old, and already she has been taught to sit a horse.”

“And very well, I am sure,” Imrahil smiled.  

“Elfirien has the entire court besotted,” his wife confirmed.  “It is well that she is blessed with a good nature, or else the indulgence would ruin her.  She very much looks forward to seeing you and her uncles in Gondor very soon.”

“How did you find your traveling companions?”

“Perfectly charming,” Nerdanel smiled as he helped her out of her gown.  “Notwithstanding the fashionable rumors Lord Baldor is bantering about, I may say that Lord Thranduil is some of the best company I have enjoyed in years, and I should not be sorry to know him better.  He is not reserved or distant at all.”

“That was my initial impression,” Imrahil agreed, pulling the string on her chemise and letting it fall to the floor.

“Legolas tells me his father is much changed since the war.  Which is to say he is very much as he ever was, but free of all the darkness which had become such a part of their lives.”

“I dare say they have earned some respite.”

“You should have seen them bantering together on the road,” she said fondly, loosing her fantastic length of hair, “more like brothers than father and son.  Has Elessar done anything about Baldor’s men yet?” she asked, her suddenly imperious tone betraying her disgust.  “It would be mortifying if they have not been called to heel by the time Thranduil arrives in Minas Tirith.”

“I have no desire to talk about Baldor at the moment,” Imrahil insisted, running his hand along the curve of her hip.  “My mind is more agreeably engaged.”

Four decades and four children later, he still never tired of looking at her.  Fine lines had begun to form around her storm blue eyes as she aged, but it made her no less beautiful.  She merely smiled.  “As you wish, my lord.”  She kissed him gently and then retreated to her bath, though not without an inviting glance back.

The time was drawing near.  Imrahil left Nerdanel and her maids to prepare themselves for the reception.  There was no great import riding on their performance that evening, but he still wanted everything to be as flawless and as grand as possible.  It was not every day that he opened his home to a legendary Elven lord.  

Considering his ancestry, cloaked in some amount of mystery though it was, the almost mythical Elven realms had always been of particular interest to him.  As a boy he had learned by heart whatever ancient records were available on the subject in the archives of Gondor.  The tale of Mithrellas, his Elvish foremother, had apparently already been familiar to Legolas when they met amid the destruction of the war.  Before that day, Imrahil had never seen an Elf in the flesh, and the majority of his countrymen seemed content that the age of the Elves was long past and that they might never be expected to be seen in Gondor again.  Now that they had become almost commonplace, Imrahil was passionately interested in their ways, their customs, their languages.  He had already noted that Legolas’ dialect was subtly different from the scholarly Sindarin he had been taught as a boy, and realized that it must be an echo of his father’s Doriathrin, the purest and most formal Sindarin spoken in the First Age and at the dawn of Men.  It staggered the mind.  Now Thranduil himself had left his own wood for what was probably the first time in centuries and expected to be entertained.  Imrahil was determined that he should not be disappointed.

He arrived in the great hall and was immediately pleased by what he saw.  The white and grey stone walls were hung with the formal swan and seafaring banners.  A small army of servants was preparing the long tables, covered in crisp white cloth, to display the variety of artfully crafted food the kitchens would soon present.  The elegantly costumed minstrels were preparing their instruments.  Rows of the finest beeswax candles were just being lit, bathing the room in a golden glow and a sweet warm scent.  A fire raged on the long hearth behind the Prince’s table, keeping the chill at bay.  The finest silver plates were getting a final polish, the same that had been used by his grandfather’s grandfather.  The shark was being carried in, the enormous head and fins used as display pieces around the platters of meat to be placed in between.  No one stopped work to acknowledge him with more than a nod, instructed to be as efficient as possible.

At the far end of the room, Imrahil saw Ciryon speaking with one of the Elves from their guests’ entourage.  They had all looked fierce when they had arrived, but now that he had set aside his guardsman’s tunic for something a bit more formal, this one had the gentle look of one who did not habitually carry a sword.  He looked up and offered a slight bow at Imrahil’s approach, but also an easy smile which spoke to his comfort around crowned heads.

“Good evening, my lord,” the dark Elf offered, straightening again.  He had a striking pair of bluish green eyes.  “If I may, allow me to congratulate you on keeping such a skilled and efficient household.”

“You may, and I thank you,” Imrahil said, inwardly quite pleased.  “Does your lord want for anything?”

“My lord the King wants for nothing,” the Elf assured him pleasantly, “and he is more than pleased by the excellent view of the sea afforded by his window.  Your man, Ciryon, has been most helpful with all the rest.  But I beg your pardon, my lord, we have not yet officially been made known to one another.  It would not do for you to have strangers wandering about your home.  I am Gwaelas, and I am to our lord the King what Ciryon is to you.”

“I am glad of the acquaintance, Gwaelas.”  Imrahil could not remember ever being introduced to a servant as he would be a peer, but clearly being ever at the Elvenking’s elbow carried a great deal of weight in Lasgalen.  “And how long have you been with your lord?”

Gwaelas hesitated a moment before answering.  He did not look embarrassed, but rather as if he wondered whether his answer could be fathomed those present.  “More than six thousand years of men,” he finally admitted.  “Two ages of this world.”

“Your loyalty is very commendable,” Imrahil smiled.  “I imagine you have seen a great deal in that time.”

“Thank you, my lord, but it truly does not require much loyalty to be content in Lord Thranduil’s service.  I was honored to be chosen.”

A page boy ran the length of the hall and stumbled to a stop near them.  “My lord,” he said with a stiff bow, slightly winded, “your guests are at the gates.”

“Very well.  See that they are admitted into the reception hall,” Imrahil instructed, “but they are not to be brought here until the preparations are complete.”  

“Yes, my lord.”

The page departed as quickly as he had come.  Already a veritable parade of enormous platters were being carried out of the kitchen and arranged on the tables.

“I must not detain you further,” Gwaelas said.  “We all have our duties to attend.”

“Indeed,” Imrahil agreed.  “Tell Lord Thranduil we will soon await his convenience outside the hall.”

Gwaelas nodded decorously, and then took his leave.

“What do you think of them, Ciryon?” Imrahil asked with sudden candor.

“That is not for me to say, my lord,” Ciryon insisted, a bit taken aback.

Imrahil smiled, more to himself than for anyone else’s benefit.  He still felt a rush of excitement in the presence of these Elves who were so vibrantly alive, who emerged like figures from his childhood imagination with no conception of diminishing any time in the near future.  It stirred something in his heart, as if he was discovering some lost part of himself.  It was a heady feeling, and one he would not soon forget.

“They are incredible.”

Representatives of all the best families in Dol Amroth had been invited to the Prince’s feast.  Given the rare occasion, almost all of them had accepted and were now queued in the antechamber.  At long last, the doors swung wide to admit them.

Imrahil and his family stood at the grand doorway to receive and greet their guests as they filed in to take their places at table.  It was a slightly tedious task, but they had never taken traditional etiquette lightly.  The Princess seemed to have taken extra care to appear to best advantage.  Nerdanel wore her finest grey and white gown trimmed with embroidered scallop shells, her longest string of pearls doubled around her neck.  Her hair was plaited long like a seaman’s rope and covered by a delicate netted veil held in place by a nacre comb.  Their three sons cut fine figures as well, much to Imrahil’s satisfaction.  Their elaborate royal tunics were styled after those of the Swan Knights, each with a white mantle draped over one shoulder and secured with a silver swan badge.  Also with them that night, to the delight of everyone, was Imrahil’s elder sister, Lady Ivreniel of Pelargir.  No one could fail to enjoy themselves in her presence.  Her red and gold damask gown and slightly foreign headdress spoke to the spectacular wealth of that city and its trade with the southernmost reaches of Gondor’s influence.

When at last all the guests had been escorted to their seats, the ruling family entered the hall, and the minstrel music turned to a royal fanfare.  The room was lit almost as daylight by scores of candles and lanterns and the fire on the hearth, the highest of the windows cracked to allow the hall to breathe the cold sea air.  The long tables were nearly groaning beneath a seafaring feast fit for any king.  There were fish of every description, those with scales and those with shells, great tentacled beasts and, of course, their prize shark.  There were cold dishes and hot ones, every description of bread imaginable, and what was meant to seem like an endless supply of wine.  The smell of it all was glorious.

When they had taken their places behind the table on the dais at the far end of the hall, Imrahil waited a moment for the music to crest, and then raised a hand for silence.  He was obliged immediately.  At the door, his master of ceremonies nodded that all was ready.

“My friends,” Imrahil began, “six years ago, winter was giving way to a much bleaker spring than it is today.  As the new year approaches, it is only fitting that we recall what we felt then, as our world stood on the brink of destruction.  We revel in our triumph now, but if we do not remember our sorrows, we forget the cause of our joy.  In the midst of that rejoicing, we must also remember that Gondor did not face this doom alone.  We are honored to have among us one who defended the cold forests even as we stood guard on the southern plains, challenging the growing darkness even when others would called it folly.  Join me in welcoming to our fairest city the Lord of Eryn Lasgalen, Ruler of Rhovanion and the Guardian of North, the last Elvenking in Middle-earth.  Hail, Thranduil Oropherion Thalion!”

His tribute was echoed with admirable enthusiasm by all present, and the musicians struck up their regal march once more.  The impressive party of Elves entered from the corridor, the king first, flanked by Legolas and then their six retainers, each in perfect step.  Thranduil wore a magnificent tunic of fine grey wool and tooled brown suede with a great flowing mantle of the same, evocative of a beech forest in winter.  It was a garment which would have been equally appropriate beneath a suit of parade armor.  His hems gleamed with silver tracery, and his belt was studded with adamant.  Both he and Legolas were crowned with sharp circlets of twisted silver leaves.  At their heels came two startlingly large wolves which could rival for size even the great water hounds of Imrahil’s menagerie.  

At once they clearly commanded the room.  Thranduil was enormous, even by the standards of Gondorian men, a vibrant remnant of an Age long forgotten.  Even Legolas carried himself differently in his father’s presence, proud to own his birthright as a prince of the ancient Eldar.  Seeing the two of them together in full regalia, Imrahil had no doubt what had held the Woodland Realm against the dark lord for so many centuries.  Some inherited their titles, but others were simply destined to wear crowns whatever their blood.  He suspected Thranduil was the latter.

With open arms and a courtly bow, Imrahil welcomed them to his table.  Thranduil accepted with a gracious nod and an unaffected smile as they climbed the dais steps and went around to the other side.  Three of their retinue detached themselves from the group to stand alongside the palace guard at the wall; the other three lingered just behind their king and prince at table.  One Imrahil immediately recognized as Gwaelas.  Another looked enough like him to be a brother, and seemed to fulfill the same duties for Legolas.  The third had a hard look about him; his narrow glances around the room and the inscrutable silver insignia on his collar betrayed him as a captain of the royal guard, to which the other three must have belonged.  They were unarmed out of deference to their host, yet by the look of them they could probably make a serviceable weapon out of any object in the room.

When at last the music had finished, Thranduil spoke.  “My lords, I thank you,” he said, his strong voice sounding clearly through the hall.  “After so long an isolation in the north, we appreciate your hospitality more than you can know.  When I first saw the storm-blown sea over Edhellond yesterday morning, it was the first time I had beheld it since the days of Elros, and I may now say that I have been more refreshed in these two days beside the shore than in the last six years complete.”  He lifted his glass, ready with the finest wine the cellars could boast.  “To the victorious Men of the South,” he proposed, “to the Gondor of Imrahil, Faramir, and Elessar.  Long may it stand!”

“Long may it stand!” echoed the crowd.

The minstrels began to play once again, barely heard over the roar of glad conversation, and everyone took their seats.  The feast had begun.

Gwaelas leaned in to speak to his lord in their own tongue.  Thranduil answered in kind.  Imrahil’s conversational Sindarin was fluent enough to understand that the king had indicated his impartial enthusiasm for the available dishes; if Gwaelas brought it, he would eat it.  He could not help smiling to himself.

“There has been many a lean year in Lasgalen when I have mourned the fish market in Mithlond,” Thranduil confessed.  “Legolas has led a deprived life in this regard, I regret to say.”

“I assure you, father, I have been making good the lost time,” Legolas insisted. 

“I wondered at first about his desire to remove here, but after seeing all that I already have on our ramble together, I must admit that a change of scene is very stimulating after a lifetime in the forest.”

“Where have your travels taken you thus far, my lord?” Imrahil asked.

“Legolas joined me in East Lórien,” Thranduil began, “if such it may still be called.  It has all but fallen to me once again in the absence of Lord Celeborn.  Ah, perfection.”  He accepted the plate which Gwaelas placed in front of him, small cuttlefish on toasts and goose barnacles with cream.  “Thence we carried on across the Anduin to what remains of Lothlórien itself.  It is a mere shadow of its former glory, I am afraid.  Farther south we came through Fangorn Forest, which Legolas was most eager that I should see.  The Onodrim were far better company than I would have imagined.”

“Before this war, I had always assumed Ents to be figures of fairytale,” Imrahil admitted, “specters to frighten children away from the deep places of the forest.”

“I had not seen one since before the breaking of the world,” Thranduil said, “but Mithrandir spoke of them once, so I suspected they had not yet all gone.  There were certainly none in my wood, though it would have been better for it.”

As if by imperceptible cue, Gwaelas refreshed his lord’s empty wine glass.

“From Fangorn to Helm’s Deep, and thence to Edoras and the court of Éomer, where I was pleased to meet the rest of your charming family.”

“My daughter did not disgrace us, I trust,” Imrahil said wryly.

“Indeed, not,” Thranduil assured him, smiling once again.  “But I must admit my heart is completely undone by Princess Elfirien.  It has been far too long since I have seen a child so keen and attentive.  Small, perhaps, for her age, yet utterly fearless.  Tell me, Imrahil - if you will indulge my curiosity - has it been observed of the children in your family that they grow slowly and yet mature quickly?”

“Less so now than in the past,” Imrahil admitted, caught rather off guard by the question.  “But, yes, it has been remarked upon.”

Thranduil nodded sagely as Gwaelas presented him with a plate of crab and shark.  “That will be your Elvish blood,” he said.  “It has carried well through the generations, and I suspect your granddaughter will be no exception.  I would not have consented to be parted from her were it not for the promise of meeting her again in a few weeks.”

Imrahil laughed.  “With so many glowing reports, Éomer had best watch the little siren closely lest hordes of errant knights follow them back to Edoras!”

The festivities went on for the better part of the evening with no end of entertainment.  Every singer, juggler, and acrobat in Dol Amroth had clambered to win a place in the lists, ostensibly to oblige their prince, but possibly more out of a desire to catch a glimpse of the exotic Elvenking.  Imrahil could not blame them; perhaps in as little as one lifetime of men, there would be no more of his kind in the world.

Thranduil seemed to enjoy it all immensely.  Privately Imrahil wondered whether that was because he was extraordinarily gracious or genuinely easy to please.  Nothing he had heard of the Elvenking of the North had prepared him to expect such cordiality.  In the end, he reasoned that Legolas must have inherited his good nature from somewhere.  Alternatively, it may be that Thranduil’s candor could be attributed to drink.  He had already easily consumed a hero’s portion of wine, almost giving credence to some of the unseemly rumors Lord Baldor had been spreading about.  However, Gwaelas seemed to have his king well in hand, and knew instinctively when to make the wine disappear for a moment and to leave water in its place.

At one point, an especially brazen juggler performed for the Elves in particular, indicating by several theatrical gestures that five flying balls were no challenge for him.  Thranduil tossed a bread roll into the fray and was delighted to see him work it flawlessly into his rhythm.  A quartet of lovely flag dancers beguiled the assembly with their twirling scarves and tossed their sea grass tiaras to the head table when they had finished.  There was a troupe of beribboned tambourine players, a wildly popular fire-eater, and an animal tamer with a trained bear.  Thranduil’s wolves did not appreciate the presence of the beast, but their master called them to heel without incident.  

Dessert was served when all had eaten their fill of the main fare.  There were thin crisp pastries basted with honey, diminutive custard pies with preserved fruit and bone marrow, apples battered and fried in ale, spiced apples baked in pastry pouches, honeyed almonds, and Rhûnish spicebread.  Rhûnish spices were extremely fashionable throughout Gondor at that moment.

When the hour drew late, and all the entertainments had been completed, the party at the head table rose to take their leave.  All the guests stood to acknowledge their going.  They would return to their homes as well within the hour.  However, the night was still young, and Imrahil led his family and guests to Nerdanel’s favorite sitting room where they could grow better acquainted.

“Lord Thranduil,” he said, when they had all gathered in that more intimate setting, “I do not believe you have been made known to my sister, Lady Ivriniel of Pelargir.”

“The pleasure is mine, my lady,” Thranduil said, gallantly taking her hand.  “I have heard Pelargir is a very grand city.”

“Indeed it is, my lord,” Ivriniel agreed, a glint of irrepressible good humor in her eye.  “But there is nothing in the title, I am afraid.  My dear husband Beleg is but a knight turned merchant, and Lord Falathar of Pelargir is of quite another family.  Excuse me; we still refer to Lord Falathar through force of habit.  He ostensibly left the post to his son just before the war, but seemingly has yet to vacate the seat.”

Thranduil looked almost wistful for a moment, and then genuinely pleased.  “I would very much like to meet your husband Beleg,” he said.  “That name carries many fond memories for me.

“I must insist you do,” Ivriniel agreed, offering the Elvenking a cup of hot spiced cider before taking one for herself.  “I fear I would not do you justice in description.”

“Rumor has it Lord Falathar relinquished his title simply to avoid answering the King’s call to arms,” Amrothos ventured.

“Rumors are not to be trusted,” Elphir chided his brother, glancing sidelong at Imrahil.

“Neither are they to be ignored,” Ivriniel insisted.  “Amrothos does well to keep his ear to the ground, though he has a thing or two yet to learn about what to do with what he hears.  The great names of Pelargir, my Lord Thranduil, are certainly not the most inspiring figures of Gondorian men-at-arms, nor the most amiable.  Wealth and power have made them a bit soft.”

“Sister,” Imrahil frowned.  “Thranduil has not come all the way from Rhovanion to hear you enumerate the shortcomings of Lord Falathar.”

“As you wish,” she said; “you will have your way in your own house, though I know you harbor no great love for him, not since he proposed Elessar throw your daughter to some Rhûnish barbarian.  It matters little, because in a matter of months it will be our Faramir who is enumerating Falathar’s shortcomings.  Elessar has ordered an assessment to begin at the close of the festivities.  It may be quite a scandal.  It is high time the King called that family to heel.”

“They are not the only ones,” Nerdanel said, her fingers restlessly intwined in her pearls.  “If Baldor continues his agitating, I fear he may ruin the festival entirely.”

“Baldor is Lord of Lamedon,” Imrahil explained for Thranduil’s benefit.  “His father, Angbor, defended that region from the Southrons during the war.  This has apparently made his son particularly sensitive to foreign incursions.”

Thranduil frowned.  “Legolas has suggested that our reception outside of Ithilien might be cooler than expected,” he admitted.

“The King has done his utmost to keep the worst from me,” Legolas said, “but I am not blind.”

“I hear the unrest is becoming more sinister,” Ivriniel said.

“It has grown more opprobrious, my lady,” Legolas clarified.  “There has been no violence yet, but my people have begun to feel it is unsafe to leave Ithilien without a companion.  Baldor no longer fears to openly vilify Queen Undómiel, much less the rest of us.”

“Rumor of my arrival has apparently sent them into a sort of frenzy,” Thranduil said, seeming to take the matter in stride.  “Their public disseminations have treated me to some of my more archetypal epithets I thought long out of use.”

Imrahil cringed inwardly.  Some of those pamphlets had made their way to Dol Amroth, warning the people against the machinations of the Green Wolves and the Eldritch King in the North who had been known to hunt Men for sport.  “Not all the citizens of Gondor were perhaps ready for a regime so remarkable as Elessar’s,” he admitted.  “Baldor fancies himself a champion of the Gondorian people against Elvish intrusion.  He has earned some celebrity clashing with the royal guard in Minas Tirith.”

“Then I shall be very disappointed if he has not planned some colorful welcome for me in the city,” Thranduil said with no small amount of wry humor.

“Any demonstration would be insufferable under these circumstances,” Nerdanel insisted hotly.  “Elessar must put a stop to this nonsense immediately.”

“Elessar feels that all objections to the Elvish presence have been heard and answered long ago, and that there is no point in arguing further,” Imrahil explained.  “He trusts in time the perpetrators will come to see the error of their ways.  In the meantime, he has more pressing matters than Baldor to contend with.”

“So, is it true that the Variags are advancing into the South?” Ivreniel asked.  “There are so many rumors in a city such as ours, we cannot always be certain we have the truth of it.”

“There have been brief incursions,” Imrahil said.  “Karzik may have been able to terrorize his way through Near Harad, but he will not ravage Gondor so easily.”

“There is an unsavory relationship between that barbarian and Lord Falathar, mark my words,” Ivriniel insisted.  “He offered his own daughter when we would not give up our Lothíriel.  I shudder to think what Faramir will unearth when he stirs that ant’s nest.”

(Author's Note: So sorry for the unpardonable delay between chapters! We must blame a dead laptop [Boo!] and a new baby [Yay!].  But now the laptop lives again, and the baby is old enough to let us write, so hopefully the updates will resume in a timely fashion.)

The next ten days passed quickly and memorably in Dol Amroth.  Imrahil spent the majority of that time playing host to their guests, leaving his official duties to his eldest son and regretting not a moment.  Free of all official capacities himself, Thranduil was keen to see and experience as much as possible during his brief stay in their part of the world.  Nothing seemed too mundane or insignificant for his notice, and Imrahil could not but marvel at his infectious enthusiasm.  They toured the harbor and the fish markets, sailed along the shore and rode horseback over the sea cliffs.  

Throughout it all, the Elvenking seemed most at home in the open air, no matter how bitterly cold it seemed to Imrahil.  They were a rugged people, the woodland Elves, now more accustomed to hardship than to comfort.  Thranduil did not speak at length about their experiences in Mirkwood, but he clearly had no objection to being questioned.  Ever inquisitive, Imrahil learned a great deal about what had transpired in the North during the last age, a period which had been largely neglected in the Gondorian record.  He would rectify that oversight, if he could.

Now it was time to leave Dol Amroth behind and make for Minas Tirith.  The resplendent entourage was two hundred strong, including the Prince’s household, his guests, the highest ranking Swan Knights and their families.  The bad weather had long blown itself out, and the first frosty hints of spring had begun to show themselves on the landscape of Belfalas.  Fortunately, the famous stone roads through the countryside of Gondor would allow the wagons and carriages to pass regardless of the thaw.

The majority of them chose to travel on horseback.  Imrahil rode near the head of the company, Nerdanel at his side.  Their two younger sons were riding in company with the Elves off to the left, practicing their Sindarin with an ease which made their father proud.  

“If my eyes are not mistaken,” Imrahil said to his wife, “our royal son of Rohan has yet again rendered a kingly gift to our Elvish friends.”

“She is indeed beautiful,” Nerdanel smiled, glancing aside to the Elvenking’s mount, a silver mare of impressive stature with bold black points and dapples like wisps of cloud on a starry night.  “Thranduil admired her at once, running wild on the plain, and Éomer bade him approach her if he could.  It seems Fréawyn would bend to none less than a king, for she came away with him willingly, and Éomer did not see fit to deny her.  Truth be told, I believe him to be excessively gratified by the thought of Elvish kings on Rohirric steeds.”

“None can begrudge him that,” Imrahil agreed.

Meanwhile, a chorus of barking erupted as Legolas’ white and grey spotted fox, Aeglos, made sport of Thranduil’s wolves.  Mischief achieved, it leapt to the relative safety of Arod’s back to ride for a bit, spry as a cat.  

“I never cease to marvel at the Elvish way with wild beasts,” Imrahil called to Thranduil as the other rode within earshot.

Seeing that Imrahil meant the fox, Thranduil laughed out loud.  “I thank you,” he said, “but if that beast were any more tame he would be a pelt on the floor.  I gave Legolas that kit when he left us for Ithilien, and its sires have been our companions for a hundred generations.  There are truly none better for hunting small game.”

“Then we must be certain to make him useful when we arrive in the forests!”

“I have every expectation that we shall,” the Elvenking assured him with a gracious smile, turning his mare away to rejoin his party.  “The imp must earn his keep.”

“The mythical king of the north certainly cuts a fine figure,” Ivriniel at last dared to venture, as bold as ever, primly adjusting her outrageous satin cap.

“Lady Ivriniel,” Imrahil chided her, “what would your husband say were he to see you lusting after strange men?”

“My lord husband understands me, little brother,” she assured him.  “I may lust after whomsoever I please, and the more unattainable the better he likes it.  Look at them!  How can eight decades weigh more heavily upon me than three ages upon him?”

“I suspect those years weigh more than we know,” Imrahil said.  “What you see are simply the high spirits of one who has achieved the single greatest triumph of his life.  But, sister, I implore you to behave yourself, on this occasion above all others.”

He could feel her lofty sneer upon him without turning to see it.  “I shall not disgrace you, brother,” she said.  “But I am not in the habit of giving a false impression of myself.”

From the window of his study, Falathar could see the distant comings and goings of Pelargir’s busiest harbor.  Like many things in that city, what could been seen comprised merely a fraction of the extremely lucrative commerce which transpired on their shores.  That visible fraction was the only part of their business the King or the house of Stewards had ever been aware of, and Falathar had intended to maintain that tradition.  However, the current regime in Minas Tirith was not so easily distracted as Denethor had been.  More drastic action was clearly required.

Falathar slowly rubbed his greying temples, attempting to smooth away a growing headache.  Elessar’s royal audit was due to commence immediately after the festival ceased, looming over them like a specter.  The King seemed to know very well that the trafficking of goods through the city may be a bit irregular and that the taxes were perhaps underpaid, but that could be pardoned once all was set right.  Unfortunately, the whole truth would earn them much more than a simple reprimand.  

Meanwhile, his new allies to the south were proving less pliable and more demanding than he had anticipated.  Certainly the most resilient of the Southrons, the Variags had retreated back to Khand after the fall of Mordor, removing themselves from the eye of Gondor until they had regained their strength.  Their neighbors in Near Harad had not been so quick to regroup, and the young Variag chieftain Karzik had been quick to exploit their weaknesses.  In only a few years he and his wainriders swept across Harad, and were now the undisputed masters of the entire territory.  He had not yet made any serious attempt to claim Harondor, though he was stopped only by the prestige of King Elessar.  There was not much in Harondor worth dying for, except perhaps the comfort afforded by a vast barren land lying between enemies.

There was a sharp knock on his door, and the guard announced the presence of his son.  Erellont entered, as he was bidden.

“You do realize that I have every right to enter this room of my own will,” Erellont reminded his father peevishly as he stamped toward the desk in his extravagant riding attire and heavy black furs.  

“True, but yet you fear to exercise that right,” Falathar observed, unruffled.  “Clearly you still have much to learn about power, which is why I am still here.”

“You are making me the laughingstock of the kingdom!”

“I am making you a figure to be reckoned with, and maintaining you in the lifestyle to which you were born,” Falathar growled.  “Someday you might see your way to helping me in the endeavor.”

Erellont sighed, but held his tongue.

“As Lord of Pelargir,” Falathar continued, setting aside his quill pen, “I trust you are aware of the assessment Elessar has ordered against this city and entrusted to Lord Faramir.”

“I am aware,” Erellont said.  “Have you a plan to deal with him, or shall I make arrangements?”

“Faramir must not set foot in this city,” Falathar said bluntly.  “There are no other arrangements to be made on that score.  If he reports even a tenth of what has transpired here over the past two generations, it will be the headsman’s axe for both of us.”

Erellont was speechless for a moment, just beginning to realize the enormity of the situation.  “Exactly how do you propose to keep him out?” he asked.  He was not the most audacious of men, but he was no fool.  A darkly incredulous look was growing on his face.

“These days are more desperate than they seem,” Falathar mused.  "At times that fool Baldor actually makes a modicum of sense.  I suspect he is correct about Elessar, with his Elvish queen and his Elvish friends who seem to have his ear more than we.  There will be nothing left for us by the time he finishes granting them shares of Gondor.  Every one of us must act to secure what is his own,” he concluded flatly, “and now is the time to act, before Faramir begets an heir upon his foreign wife.  Your mother’s blood will put you on the Steward’s seat in his stead, and Elessar will no longer be any threat to us.”

“Father!”  Erellont looked aghast.

“Alternatively, we could flee Pelargir in disgrace and fall upon the mercy of your sister and her husband in Khand,” Falathar quipped, “an option I am not yet willing to consider.  The coming of the Elvish king is extremely fortuitous.  Baldor is not able to contain the storm he is brewing, and Cormallen will soon be overrun by strangers from distant lands.  Any number of unfortunate accidents could happen.”

The color had drained from his son’s face, but he offered no objection.  

“Of course you will say nothing of this to anyone,” Falathar concluded, taking up his quill again, “not even to that orphan whore with whom you seem to share so much of your life.  I shall know more of what is to be done when we have reached Minas Tirith.  Summon Radhruin on your way out.”

“You know I object to that man,” Erellont protested sternly.

“If you knew half of what he has already done in your name, you would keep those objections to yourself,” Falathar said, squelching that glimmer of insubordination immediately.  “There are few enough to whom a fugitive corsair may turn in these days; his loyalty is absolute.  Indeed, outside of this household, he may be the only other we can trust in these . . . delicate times.”

Erellont scowled.  “I only pray he does not end in the same grave you and grandfather have been digging for this family.”

“I will see you on a throne before I will consent to be buried anywhere,” Falathar growled.  “For that, your ingratitude seems to know no bounds.  But, unless you intend to go whimpering to Elessar at once, I believe you have many pressing duties to attend.  Imrahil and his menagerie will be here within the fortnight, and I expect you to monopolize their time with royal entertainments.”

Erellont went as he was told, though clearly with grave reservations of his own.  Falathar was not overly concerned; whatever his son’s qualms, Erellont was too much in love with his own life to throw it away making grand and gallant gestures.  

The cold dark of evening was falling quickly, and the city had begun to glow with torchlight.  Falathar stood and strode purposefully out of his study, leaving the tedious paperwork for the next morning.  He descended through his gilded halls to the cellar, a cavernous space connected to the harbor by a series of canals which kept the lifeblood of the city flowing at all hours.  There merchants of many lands loaded and unloaded their barges, each of them beholden in some way to the Lord of Pelargir.  

“Dolmed,” Falathar addressed one of them, giving the rather portly man a violent start.  “How good of you to offer the services of your ship again so soon.”

“You know it gives me no pleasure, my lord.”  Dolmed had indeed always been made extremely ill at ease by his playing the smuggler from time to time, but the rewards were great and his excessive debts left him little other recourse.

“You will not feel the sting so much with coin in your coffers,” Falathar assured him.  “I see you have enough to make it worth your while.”  He lifted the lid from one of the large wine bins to find a rather pretty young woman on a bed of straw.  In another, two young girls and a boy.  The entire cargo would be similarly laden with desperate street children of the city, orphans of the war who would be missed by no one.  A short sea voyage to the insatiable markets of Harad would turn these liabilities into profit.

“See that you are gone before first light,” he instructed the reluctant captain, “but return at midnight for this one.  I will have finished with her by then.”

As they at last approached the western wall of Pelargir, Imrahil left the larger contingent of his companions in the capable hands of his wife and sons.  They would find lodging for the night in the relatively quiet outskirts of the city, inconvenient for merchants but perfect for passing travelers.  He, his intimate household, and their Elvish companions were to be welcomed as guests by Falathar in the governor’s palace deep in the heart of town.  It was an honor Imrahil did not entirely relish.

He had harbored mixed feelings about the place ever since first visiting as a young man.  It was indeed a wondrous city, famous for its exotic markets and lively spirit, but it was also crowded, noisy, and always a bit filthy despite the heroic efforts of a small army of street sweepers.  It always made him pine for the fresher air of Dol Amroth.

Two colorful heralds rode out to meet them at the second gate, likely to be their official chaperones.  Falathar was famously attentive to the needs of his important guests.

“Hail and well met, my Lords of Dol Amroth and of the Woodland Realm!  Lord Erellont bids you welcome to Pelargir, City of a Thousand Wonders!”

Imrahil glanced at Thranduil, who surveyed it all with a look of benign disinterest.  He wondered briefly how many years of diplomatic drivel the Elvenking had endured during his interminable reign.  “Convey our thanks to Lord Erellont,” he said, “and our pleasure at his hospitality.”

“We have been instructed to escort you to your quarters in the palace, or indeed to wherever else you may wish to go.”

“In that case, young man,” Ivriniel inserted herself, “cease your babbling and escort us to Lord Beleg’s counting house.”

Imrahil nodded his approval, and the heralds both bowed low over their horses.  “At once, my Lords!  Please follow closely.”

The first turned to lead the way, the other hanging back to take up the rear.  Imrahil noted some narrow glances from the Elvenking’s guard, but they made no complaint.  

Pelargir was not a small city, so it was a ride of some duration through the bustling street traffic before they reached the harbor.  In the meantime, the architecture had already begun to give a distinctly mismatched impression.  Originally built to exacting Númenorean standards, the shops and houses appeared to have then been decorated by a flock of magpies.  Statues, blown glass, hammered metalwork and other ornamental clutter were mounted everywhere.  Bright silken flags bearing family crests or other more generic heraldry seemed to adorn every other doorpost.  Elaborate facades has been added to the grandest homes, many built of red, pink, or green stone, glimmering with inclusions.  

“Pelargir has always been extremely . . . fashionable,” Imrahil explained.

“As you say,” Thranduil agreed, understanding him perfectly.

They crossed the great white bridge leading across the water onto the vast and unnaturally triangular island in the middle of the harbor where the majority of the business was transacted.  Here the hustle and bustle was even greater.  Fortunately the weather was still very brisk, or else the smell of the canals, the livestock, and the general crush of people would have been decidedly robust.  

Ivriniel’s husband’s establishment would have gone unnoticed anywhere in Minas Tirith or Osgiliath, but in Pelargir its simplicity stuck out like a straight tooth in a crooked mouth.  The only ornamentation was a plaque of black granite above the door bearing the rune “B.”

“At last!” Ivriniel sighed, allowing the herald to take her reins as she dismounted.  “Come, let us leave our horses there in the green.”  

Their horses tethered on a nearby sward under the watchful eyes of their escorts, the whole party followed her inside.

“Husband!” Ivriniel called cheerfully.  “I come with guests of some consequence!  I do hope you have some decent drink about the place.”

“Only the very best, my dear lady,” Beleg assured her, entering the room with a theatrical enthusiasm.  “Imrahil!  Legolas!  Welcome to our humble establishment.  And at last, the fabled Elvenking,” he said, coming to attention with practiced ease and offering a crisp military bow.  “I have eagerly anticipated our meeting, my lord.”

“As have I, Master Beleg,” Thranduil said, accepting his obecience with a gracious nod.  “I regret to see you were so grievously injured during the war.”

“Bah, I forbid you to pity me,” Beleg smiled, shrugging his stump of an arm.  “They left me just enough to remain useful.  I am quite fortunate that they spared the better of my two hands.”

“Enough of introductions,” Ivriniel insisted.  “We have time enough to become acquainted, and we have had a long weary ride from Belfalas.  Fetch the wine, my love.”

Beleg was quite correct about the quality of his vintage, Imrahil noted.  He was justifiably proud of the enterprise he shared with his brother, Brandir, thriving as it was after the near ruination of his family before the war.  He gladly gave them a brief tour of the place.  Thranduil, once again, seemed indefatigably interested in the minutia of the business, and asked many questions, which delighted their host.

“We are primarily importers of ore and fine stone,” Beleg explained, “but we have begun to deal a bit in banking and in other matters of more mundane commerce.  It seems best to diversify our interests, especially now that matters are so unsettled in Harad.”

A clamor of children’s laughter from another room interrupted them.

“Do not tell me you have begun hosting a schoolhouse as well!” Imrahil jested.

“Not in the strictest sense, brother,” Beleg smiled, “although they are indeed at their studies, and we must not disturb them.  The war unfortunately left many orphans in its wake, and it seemed to me an intolerable waste that they should spend their lives begging in the streets or forced into mindless labor.  We arrange apprenticeships for those who are willing, and they then remove to the North to assist in repopulating Fornost.”

“That is an excellent scheme,” Imrahil commended him with genuine enthusiasm.  “You must bring it to the King.  The problem is by no means unique to Pelargir.”

“I shall,” Beleg promised, “for we shall all see Minas Tirith soon enough.  But at this moment, my lords, I fear I have more immediate concerns, for I have not eaten since dawn of this day.”

“Nor have we,” Ivriniel assured him, “and I have been dreaming of the meat vendors all the way across Lebennin.  Let us walk the markets!  We would be sadly remiss if we failed to treat our guests, and it will do us all good after so long in the saddle.”

“We certainly have no objection,” Thranduil agreed.  “Lead us to this famous trove of curiosities.”

It was but a short walk from there to the market district, and there were indeed some fabulous smells wafting toward them.  Beleg treated them all to a variety of delicious morsels on sticks which they were able to eat on their feet.  Spiced lamb was the most familiar taste on offer, while others catered to more adventurous palates. They sampled bits of barandir, that great humped desert horse, smoked antelope, fried turtle, and even tail of river dragon, his impressive jaws on display for curious patrons.

One could not visit the markets of Pelargir simply to eat.  Shops and stalls of every description stood in rows on either side of the street, and the atmosphere was like that of a carnival.  Ivriniel was drawn immediately to a perfumer, and began boldly asking the Elvenking's opinion of several scents, almost all of which both he and Legolas seemed to find overpowering.  Not surprisingly, they were drawn instead to the vast collection of exotic horns and hides on display nearby, including mumak ivory and the pelt of an unsettlingly large striped cat allegedly from the snows beyond Khand.  There was a fine paper shop, several stalls of leather goods, brightly colored carpets, stores of unfamiliar nuts and dried fruit, aromatic spices, scented oils and mineral salts, and even an apothecary offering traditional remedies from foreign lands and strange talismans for any and all purposes.  Thranduil laughed outright and bought a small figure of rowan wood from the woman because she told him it was proven to repel woodland sprites.

It was perhaps inevitable that they should at last be drawn to the silversmith.  A look of unaffected delight came over the Elvenking’s face which must have gladdened the shopkeeper’s heart.  From the midst of all the beautiful things, he seized upon a sturdy pendant depicting Tauron, the Vala called Oromë of old, with the express intention of giving it to little Elfirien.  A bit awed by his patronage, the smith’s wife bid him wait a moment, and returned offering him a large and exquisitely crafted wolf’s head brooch set with diamond that he might feel ever welcome in Gondor.  Genuinely pleased, Thranduil put it on immediately, making her a gift of his old one.  Imrahil observed, though the Elves did not, a glowering frown from her husband, but under the circumstances she seemed not to care one whit, clutching her new treasure and smiling as though she may never cease.

A pearl merchant observed his neighbor’s success, and began calling to the royal party to choose any oyster they would so that he might produce a surprise pearl for them.  Unfortunately for him, Imrahil was extremely confident in the superiority of the pearls of Dol Amroth and warned his companions away, for which he was rewarded with a withering glare from the frustrated entrepreneur.  

Last of all, they came upon a prolific watercolorist and his vast collection of hastily-executed but whimsically skillful paintings of the notable sights of Gondor, each set on a small sturdy piece of paper and clearly intended to be collected or sent home by visitors to the city.  Amused, Thranduil asked the astonished artist for any depictions he may have of the Elves of Ithilien.  Indeed, he had several, and Thranduil purchased no fewer than twenty.  Legolas protested that his portraits looked nothing like him, but that could not dampen his father’s enthusiasm.

“Thank you for the tour, brother Beleg,” Imrahil said at last, fondly clapping him on the shoulder.  “We really must see ourselves settled before long, as we are expected for dinner.  Shall we meet again at first light?”

“Indeed we shall,” Beleg agreed.  “You will not be shed of us so easily.”

“Until tomorrow, sister.”  Imrahil took his leave of Ivriniel with a fraternal kiss.  Whatever his own feelings about Pelargir, she had never regretted her marriage and had always enjoyed that special happiness every brother should wish for his sister.

“Until tomorrow,” she agreed.  “Do not allow Falathar to offend our guests.”

“I trust Thranduil has encountered creatures more hateful than Falathar in his time,” he assured her.  “He needs no protection from me.”

Falathar slowly paced a well-worn path through the armory, calming the chaotic machinations of his mind before facing his social obligations for the evening.  Something about the musty smell of oil and leather always focused his thoughts.  He had been informed of his guests’ arrival that afternoon, but had been too occupied to meet them personally.  Many matters vied for his attention.

He had no personal desire to leave for Minas Tirith and endure the measured mistrust of Elessar in person.  In truth he he wished to stay as far removed as possible, but there was no avoiding it.  He must make of it what he could, an opportunity to show himself and his son to best advantage.  All the while he must observe closely the hysterics of Baldor of Lamedon, as they might prove crucial.  All things in their own time.  Tonight he must take the measure of this newest pawn in his game, unlooked for but by no means unwelcome.  At the moment he would gladly be eclipsed by the coming and going of greater lords, as he could ill afford closer scrutiny. 

The soft tread of heavy boots entered the armory behind him, and Falathar turned to see that the chief among his pawns had finally appeared as requested.  He was a large gristly man, unkempt black hair knotted behind his back, his dark tunic worn and stained with age.  His weathered face was covered with scars, his arms with Southron tattoos.

“Radhruin,” Falathar greeted him simply.  “Prompt as ever.”

The corsair said nothing.  He had ever been a man of few words.  His deeds spoke for themselves.

“Change is coming to Gondor once again, my friend,” Falathar continued, “and I shall have much need of your skill if we are to end with the better portion.  I know you would not hesitate to strike a blow against the rule of Elessar for its own sake, but I am also prepared to compensate you handsomely.”

Radhruin’s face was almost impossible to read, frozen in a perpetual scowl.  “I have heard of your impending quarrel with Faramir,” he said.  “Now I suspect I should not wager on his success.”

“You must precede us to Cormallen and await my instruction,” Falathar commanded.  “Stay out of sight, and declare yourself to no one.  Even the Elves must fail to mark your presence.  It may be best to avoid Ithilien altogether until the last.  I know you have your ways.”  He gave the other a pouch full of silver coins.  “This is but a taste of the riches that shall be yours,” he promised.  “You may in fact see a significant improvement in your lot when we are at last in a position to effect it.”

Radhruin gave him a poisonous look.  “I may serve at your call when I must, but I am not your creature, Falathar.  I might improve my own lot if I would but leave this wretched land.  I still have purposes of my own.”

“Very well, master corsair,” Falathar allowed, his voice turned to ice.  “But while you remain in my service, I expect those purposes of yours to await their own turn.  Be at Cormallen before the King’s men.  You will be told then what is to be done.”

Radhruin turned away slowly, holding Falathar’s gaze with a sort of presumptuous distain which the other found decidedly discomfiting.  Then he left as he had come, quietly and in shadow.

Falathar stepped out into the corridor as well, turning in the opposite direction.  The grand supper he had planned would soon be served, and he sought to drive the lingering impression of Radhruin from his thoughts, prepared to spend the evening in much more savory company.

“My lord.”  A page met him near the great hall.  “Your guests await you.”

“Very well.  Let them wait a moment more.”

When he felt perfectly ready, he entered through the enormous oaken doors.

It was a quiet and intimate affair, though the great empty spaces of the ornate hall gave it a cavernous and dispassionate atmosphere, bathed in flickering yellow torchlight.  His guests were seated well away from one another along a square formation of long tables around an open center where at present a Southron woman was treating them to a slow and rather sensual snake dance to the subtle music of two minstrels.

Erellont stood out of deference for his father, as did the favorites of their household.  Imrahil did not, nor did Legolas, nor did that titanic figure of fawn and crimson he assumed was Thranduil.  Each of them boasted rank enough to afford the privilege.  Six Elvish attendants stood behind their lords like statues, just outside the ring of brightest light.

“Welcome to our home, my lords,” Falathar said, “as I am certain my son, the governor, has already bid you.  Please forgive my tardiness.  Let the meal be not delayed a moment longer on my account.”

“Indeed not,” Erellont agreed tersely, giving the signal for the first course to be served.

“Lord Thranduil,” Falathar began pleasantly, choosing to address him directly and not waste any more time about it, “I understand that this is not your first visit to our country.”

“It is not,” the Elvenking confirmed, his voice like velvet.  “But it seems a lifetime ago when I last saw the Anduin, in the last days of Elendil.”

“Surely this will be a much more joyous occasion,” Erellont offered, seeming to sense his father had touched an unfortunate subject.

Six servants had entered bearing three great trays, crabs dressed with butter and cinnamon in their own shells, eel and oyster pies with raisins and currants, and boiled mussels in saffron almond milk.  They began serving in silence.

“Of course,” Imrahil agreed.  “Let us not dwell on bitter days so long past.”

“I imagine your people in Ithilien are eager to show their king what their labors have accomplished,” Erellont continued.

“They speak of little else,” Legolas smiled, clearly quite proud.  “Our King has always shared our sorrows, and our joys are never complete unless he can share them as well.”

Falathar considered his dinner guests individually as they continued to make dull but polite conversation.  Imrahil he knew well already; the man was Elessar’s bulldog, loyal to a fault and entirely incorruptible.  In short, he was no use to him at all, and would likely prove a formidable nuisance.  He and his nephew Faramir were cut of the same cloth in that respect.

He knew Legolas more by reputation than by personal experience.  He, too, was a paragon of loyalty who apparently observed much but said little, and did not often assert himself.  He would be unlikely to challenge any judgment of Elessar’s.

Thranduil, however, seemed exactly what Falathar had hoped he would be.  He was an imperious figure, proud, vain, and supremely confident in the blind devotion of his subjects.  He would certainly excite Baldor’s prejudices.

“My son has told me your city was besieged by corsairs during the war,” the Elvenking was saying.

“Indeed,” Erellont confirmed, “and not for the first time.  Pelargir has had a long history of violence with the Corsairs of Umbar.  But now that Elessar has routed them, we may yet dare to hope for peace on our seas.”

The second course was now served, grilled pike in ginger wine, lampreys and spiny urchins in spiced blood sauce, hash of calves tongues, and great loaves of bread stuffed with sausages, affectionately known as dragontails. 

“These corsairs are not of the Gondorrim?”

“They were once,” Imrahil explained.  “They were partisans of a usurper to the throne and driven from Pelargir by King Eldacar during the kin-strife of the Second Age.  They established themselves in Umbar and have harried our coasts ever since.  Thankfully the war was finally the ruin of them.”

“The war was the ruin of many things which shall not be mourned in this new Age,” Legolas said.

“Very true,” Falathar agreed, “and although peace is a very slippery thing, I share my son’s hope that Pelargir may continue to be among the foremost jewels in the crown of Gondor, continuing in the spirit in which the Faithful of Númenor built her.”

At least, that was how he hoped Elessar would continue to see it.  He was prepared to sacrifice a very great deal to make that possible.

After a merry but uneventful journey from the southern harbors, the whole party at last approached Minas Tirith on the afternoon of the third day.  They passed through the newly rebuilt Rammas Echor by the South Gate, closest to the gleaming city walls.  Giddy with glad anticipation, Imrahil threw decorum to the wind and spurred his horse into a gallop.  His guard, his two younger sons and the Elves were happy to keep pace with him, leaving their companions to follow in their own time.  

They slowed to declare themselves as they drew near to the Great Gate, or rather the place where the Great Gate should have been.  It was still no more than a temporary barricade hastily erected in the gap left by the armies of Mordor in the otherwise impenetrable black stone of the outer wall.

“How unfortunate that so fair a city should still be so scarred in the hour of its glory,” Thranduil said, apparently with genuine regret. 

“Fear not, my lord,” Legolas assured him.  “We have heard that Gimli and his friends have completed a mighty commission for King Elessar.  Very soon all will be set right.”

The guards dragged the barricade open to admit the Prince of Dol Amroth and the other guests of the King.  

The long switch-back path they were obliged to follow in order to travel up through the city allowed Imrahil to regale the Elvenking with tales of his part in the defense of that place during the war.  Thranduil attended the tale closely, apparently morbidly fascinated by descriptions of the evil siege engines and other implements of destruction which had caused the lingering damage along the walls and ramparts.  

“All the foul creatures of this world seem to take perverse pleasure in ruining grand and beautiful things,” the Elvenking lamented.  “But I have it from a very near source that Elessar will soon be seeking the services of my Elves and of Thorin’s Dwarves to restore the glory of this place.”

“I do not doubt it,” Imrahil agreed.  “There is a very great deal to be rebuilt in these new times of peace, so much that the work can seem overwhelming.  Fortunately, there were some beautiful things even the Dark Lord could not bear to destroy, and the hoarded wealth of Mordor will suffice to pay for the ruin wrought by its servants.”

They mounted the incline onto the third level, and Imrahil’s heart immediately sank.  A thick mass of people was gathered ahead in the street around a passionate orator who had planted himself on a broken plinth once reserved for a statue of King Hyarmendacil.  He apparently had little fear of the King’s justice, and his vociferous tirade held such a crowd rapt that the royal party was obliged to stand their horses.  Their approach was noted by only a few.

“It is an outrage against the blood of our fathers that the lands which they defended would now be freely ceded to a race so wholly unconcerned with the affairs of Gondor,” he was saying.  “If Ithilien is not firmly taken back in hand, it may be that we shall never wrest it from these deathless people.  Perhaps they have tired of their own realms, or perhaps the war has driven them to invade our borders, but we must stem the tide at once or in years to come it may be that Gondor shall no longer be the inheritance of Men.  Now even the Elvish king has come to appraise his new province, a figure of such black rumor that even others of his own race shun him, a tyrant and a drunkard who has reigned by hostile magic in the darkness of Mirkwood for centuries, hunting the Men of the north for sport and committing acts of unspeakable bestiality with his harem of hounds!”

Thranduil laughed before Imrahil could object, startling the crowd.  It was a strong and pleasant sound, but not without a perilous air.  “Baldor of Lamedon, I presume,” he said.  “You must tell me more about myself.”

“The lord of the woodland rabble,” Baldor said, boldly turning on the royal party.  “Come to dump your superfluous princes and sate their avarice with our lands?  I have a great deal more to say, if indeed you have the stomach for it.”

Imrahil had heard enough.

“Be silent, for once and for all, Lord of Lamedon,” he said, “before you irreparably shame your King in his own city!”

“I have stomach enough for many things more poisonous than you, little Man of Gondor,” Thranduil assured him.  “I find this absurd furor you have incited on my account not altogether unamusing.”

The grim banter elicited a titter from the crowd, not all of whom it seemed were entirely convinced by Baldor’s inflammatory allegations. 

“Laugh while you can,” Baldor rounded on them.  “But mind you keep your daughters close while this master of wolves flaunts his power among us, despoiler of orphans and usurper of the victories of others.”

“Seize him,” Imarhil commanded, his patience at an end, and the two Swan Knights attending him pushed through the crowd to drag Baldor from his perch.  “The King will hear of the way you comport yourself before his guests, and you will abide by his judgement.”

“The King knows the Lords of Lamedon are fearless, for it was he who named them so,” Baldor declared as the Swan Knights bound his hands.  “I do not fear to speak the truth!”

Imrahil urged his horse forward, forcing the spectators to make way for them.  A handful cheered as they passed, Baldor still protesting his righteousness as he was marched after them.  Whether they applauded Baldor's principles or his removal from the street, none could say.

“I must apologize for his insolence,” Imrahil said as they approached the fourth gate.  “Elessar allows his lords a fair amount of latitude, but he will be grieved to hear how his hospitality was tarnished today.”

“If we have any quarrel in Gondor, it is with our friend to the rear, not with Elessar or with you,” Thranduil assured him.  “But if he should content himself with merely trumpeting the fevered imaginings of desperate men, then I shall be content to ignore him.”

“The trouble arises with those who have taken his words to heart,” Legolas said darkly.  He was less flippant about the matter than his father, for he had been living under the shadow of Baldor’s growing influence for years.

“Surely there cannot be many who give credence to such rubbish.”

“Many more than we would like to admit,” Imrahil confessed.  “It is an ongoing concern, and I believe Elessar harbors the very dear hope that you will give a better account of yourself during your stay here than that son of Angbor has done.”

“The truth will out!” Baldor called from behind, attending their conversation as well he might.  “Gondor for the Gondorrim!”

Thranduil scowled, clearly annoyed, but he would not give his enemy the satisfaction of acknowledgement.  “Ignoring him may prove more difficult than I imagined,” he admitted.

Back and forth across streets of white stone, they climbed the dizzying heights of the city towards the Citadel until at last they passed through the seventh gate and emerged onto the immaculate courtyard of the White Tree.  It had thrived in the past years and was prepared now to put forth the first buds of spring.

Leaving their horses and hounds in the keeping of the palace guard, Imrahil led his sons and their Elvish companions through the heavy doors and into the King’s court.

The hall of severe black and white stone was occupied by many people from all walks of life waiting in the wings for a moment of the King’s time, as it ever was when he was present.  As they entered, Elessar stopped a rather tedious recitation of petitions from Osgiliath and descended from his throne, his arms thrown wide.

“Imrahil!” he said with a brilliant smile, accepting the Prince’s official reverence before grasping his hand and clapping him on the shoulder.  “I would have you here with us more often, my friend, but I know you prefer the charms of your own city.”

“I cannot deny it, my lord,” Imrahil agreed.  “It was a pleasure to share it with our guests from the north.”

“I can well imagine it.  Mae govannen, Thranduil!”

Elessar and the Elvenking caught one another by the wrist and shared a quick but surprisingly informal martial embrace which initially caught Imrahil off his guard.  He supposed it should not have, for it was in keeping with the remarkable warmth and ease of manner which seemed to characterize all the woodland Elves when among their friends.

“Words cannot describe how gratified I am to receive you in Gondor, my lord,” Elessar said.

“I was powerless to resist your invitation,” Thranduil confessed.  “For all my years, I have travelled entirely too little of this world.  I would also see what my son and his companions have wrought in Ithilien.”

“They have every reason to be proud,” Elessar assured him.  “Have you not, Legolas?”

“As you say,” Legolas smiled.

“I beg you all to forgive me, but I cannot tear myself away from my duties at present,” the King explained.  “Your quarters have been prepared in the Steward’s House, and I would be pleased if you would dine with us tonight.”

“Indeed we shall,” Imrahil agreed, “but I regret that there is one matter I must submit to your judgement immediately, my lord.”

The King’s face fell as the Swan Knights marched Baldor before him, the Lord of Lamedon glowering impotently as he was displayed to the entire court.

“I can well imagine what offenses have landed you here, son of Angbor,” Elessar said.  “Have you already so offended my guests that my march-warden has been obliged to place you in bonds?” 

“I speak only truths which the Gondorian people have need to hear,” Baldor said.

“He speaks only ludicrous fantasies,” Thranduil countered.  “I am not without patience, Aragorn, but I have not ridden three hundred leagues to endure this sort of petty abuse.”

Elessar raised his hand and nodded, well aware of his subordinate’s objectionable exploits.  “Baldor of Lamedon,” he said, becoming a bit more severe, “I believe I made my position on this matter quite clear some time ago.  I am reluctant to constrain you, my lord, but your insolence is becoming insufferable, and perhaps a command must now suffice when my assurances will not.  I have heard the vicious tittle-tattle you have been bandying about, and I tell you now that if you cannot refrain from slandering my guests, I shall be forced to confine you to Lamedon until midsummer.”

“You cannot silence us all, my lord,” Baldor said defiantly.  “The truth will out despite you!”

“No, I believe in time the truth will out despite you, son of Angbor,” Elessar said.  “Gondor is more fortunate than many other realms to enjoy the presence of the Elves while they yet live among us, and it grieves me that you cannot see it.  But I shall not allow grief on your account to spoil the New Year.  You may hold your tongue from this day forth, or you may leave this city.  Now, let this be the end of the matter.”

At a gesture from the King, the Swan Knights unbound Baldor’s hands and set him at liberty.  Baldor rubbed at the light abrasions on his wrists with a sour look.  

“This is by no means the end of this matter, my lord!” he said, defiant to the last.  “I shall never stand idle while the heritage of our people is whored to the Elves.”

“You will come to regret those words,” Elessar promised icily, “but I would prefer that you arrived at that conclusion in your own time rather than be brought to it by force.  I have given you the terms of your release; go your way before I reconsider.” 

Cautioned but unrepentant, Baldor turned to take his leave but found the imposing Elvenking directly in his path.  The narrow look Thranduil leveled upon him made it abundantly clear that the Lord of Lasgalen did not require Elessar to fight his battles.  Then he favored him with a grim smile.

“Take this in memory of our meeting, Lord Baldor,” he said, placing in the other’s hand the rowan wood charm he had acquired in Pelargir.  “Perhaps you will find it more efficacious than I.”

They enjoyed an intimate supper that evening in the King’s House.  King Elessar and Queen Arwen Undómiel presided over the gathering of friends both old and new, the occasion gladdened by much mirth and a great deal of wine.  

The Queen’s brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, were in attendance, fresh from an excursion to Fornost.  They had very encouraging reports of the progress which had been made rebuilding that city, claiming that it now bore little resemblance to the desolate ruin which had been called Deadmen’s Dike for so many years.

Imrahil related the particulars of their journey across Belfalas and their encounter with Lords Falathar and Erellont in Pelargir.  Beside him, Nerdanel shared the latest news from Rohan with the King and Queen, and admittedly took advantage of the opportunity to boast of their royal granddaughter’s accomplishments.

For himself, King Elessar was near bursting with excitement and anticipation over the elaborate New Year’s festival which would finally be put in motion in a few days time.  They were expecting many more guests very soon, including the royal party from Rohan, Gimli and the Dwarves of Algarond, and Faramir from across the river in Emyn Arnen.  The high ceremony and unmitigated revelry would soon begin with the rededication of the city and the restoration of the Great Gate.  Then it would be north to Cormallen for a fortnight of feasting the like of which none of them had ever seen.

Their conversation continued easily into the deep of the night.  Queen Arwen and Lady Nerdanel finally excused themselves, leaving the men to their own company.  None of them was inclined to be the first to quit the group and break the convivial spell, and the ample supply of wine served only to further blunt their troubles along with their sobriety.  Imrahil retained wit enough to thoroughly enjoy the singular experience of seeing the Kings and Princes of Gondor and Elven Greenwood laughing together like schoolboys, for the moment completely free of all official cares and concerns.

“The longer I consider the circumstances of the case,” Thranduil said then, “the more I begin to believe that your Lord Baldor may indeed have the right of it.  Our insidious Elvish blood seems to have already reached some very deep places in Gondor.”

“That was perhaps inevitable,” Elladan observed, “as we are all akin somehow.”

“Indeed,” Legolas agreed, “and many times over.”

“Hold there,” Imrahil bade them, deeply interested.  “Explain this great kindred conspiracy.  I was not aware that the families of Imladris and Lasgalen were bonded in blood.”

“Oh, now you are in for a long and twisted tale!” Elessar warned him.

“Quit your moaning, Aragorn,” Thranduil demanded amiably.  “Imrahil has asked, and I shall answer.  As it happens, both Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien are my second cousins once removed, as her grandfather and my father’s grandfather were brothers.  Thus Legolas is twice a third cousin to your Queen Arwen and her brothers through their mother, Celeborn’s daughter Celebrían.”

Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir raised their glasses to acknowledge it.  

“He is simplifying the truth,” Elrohir dared to comment.  “Legolas is again our third cousin on our father’s side, though twice removed.”

“Yes, and more,” Thranduil agreed, “for here it becomes a bit tortuous.  Have we lost you, Imrahil?”

“Please, say on,” Imrahil smiled.  “I shall attend as well I may.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, pausing briefly to collect his thoughts.  “Their father, Elrond of Imladris, is my kinsman through his mother Elwing’s father, Dior of Doriath, son of my first cousin twice removed, Lúthien Tinúviel of celebrated memory.  Elwing’s mother, however, was Nimloth, daughter of Celeborn’s brother Galathil, and therefore my second cousin.”

“Making our father at once your third cousin once removed and second cousin twice removed,” Elladan explained, distilling the genealogical tangle to its salient point.

“The same might obviously be said of his brother, Elros of Númenor,” Legolas observed, “making us some sort of distant kinsmen to you, Aragorn.”

“And to his heirs,” Thranduil agreed, “especially now that your Queen is four times our cousin.”

“Wait.”  Imrahil held up his hand for silence, a bit lost amid the dizzying array of names and relationships.  “Was not Galadriel of Lothlórien come from the Immortal West?  How is she akin to lords of Middle-earth?”

“Her mother’s father was Olwë of Alqualondë,” Thranduil answered him, “the long-sundered brother of King Elu Thingol of Doriath.  Their third brother was my father’s grandfather.”

“It all seems to come back to those three, does it not?” Elessar mused.

“Indeed it does,” Thranduil agreed heartily, raising his glass.  “To our common Elvish forebear whose name none of us can recall, the father of Elwë, Olwë and Elmo of the Third Kindred in the First Age of this world.  Long may his bloodline dominate Middle-earth!”

They all agreed with a lusty shout and drained their wine once again.

Legolas shook his head.  “This is all quite apart from the fact that Imrahil boasts the blood of Mithrellas of Lórien,” he reminded them, “and through his house so does Faramir and the line of Stewards, and now even the heirs of Éomer of Rohan.”

Elessar threw up his hands.  “I yield the point,” he said at last.  “Clearly Baldor is correct.  The ruin of Gondor is at hand.”

His facetious surrender set them all laughing again, for the memory of the Lord of Lamedon’s preposterous doomsaying seemed uproarious upon reflection.  Even if a significant minority of the population had espoused his extreme opinions, who would dare assail them?

It would require something of greater consequence than Baldor of Lamedon to dampen this New Year.

When Imrahil finally awoke the next morning in a sea of ruffled bedding, he knew it was already very late.  His head ached, his mouth was dry, and every sound seemed magnified out of all proportion.  A piercing sliver of sunlight shone cruelly through the gap in the draperies.

“Good morning, husband,” Nerdanel greeted him with an insidiously cheery voice, returning from the adjoining room already dressed and with her hair plaited.  She was plainly aware of his affliction and yet inclined to show him no mercy.  “You were very amorous last night.”

“Was I?”  Imrahil considered sitting up, but then thought better of it.  “Forgive me, love, I do not remember.”

“No doubt.”  She brought him a cup of icy water, fresh from the reservoirs of mountain snow melt.  “Drink this, and you will soon be yourself again.”

Imrahil did as he was instructed.  It made him a bit queasy, but he knew it was for the best.  He finished it and held out his cup for more, which he then sipped more cautiously.  

“I trust your raucous evening was worth the price?” Nerdanel asked.

“Oh, indeed it was,” he managed to smile.  “My memory was not completely undone by drink, I assure you.  Did you know that Thranduil is a blood relation of our Queen?  I must confess many of the finer points were lost upon me, but later I shall have Legolas set the facts to paper.”

Ciryon appeared at the door with a fresh suit of clothes for his lord.  Nerdanel accepted them on her husband’s behalf and requested that some breakfast be brought.

“Prince or no, you cannot lie abed all morning,” she said when the others had gone, pulling back the coverlet.  “Your daughter is due to arrive this day, and I refuse to explain to her that her illustrious father is lazing about in a drunken stupor.”

Imrahil glowered up at her.  “You are pitiless, my lady.”

It was a laborious task, but once he had pulled himself out of bed and washed in the cold mountain water he did in fact feel much refreshed.  Half dressed, he was at last brave enough to pull back the drape and open the window to the bracing rush of fresh morning air.  A stubborn chill lingered, but spring was upon them, touching the Pelannor with a delicate flush of green.

He could see several figures on the field below, and at last recognized Legolas and Thranduil on horseback, running the dogs.  The revels of the previous night had apparently not slowed them much, if at all.  Imrahil shook his head, envying their astonishing resilience.

“Are those our dogs out there as well?” he asked, seeing two familiar black shapes among the others.

“They are,” Nerdanel confirmed, giving him his jerkin for the day, grey, white and pale blue.  “Legolas came for them this morning and asked if they were in need of the exercise.  I did not imagine you would object.”

When at last he was completely presentable, Imrahil donned a light cloak and kissed his lady farewell.  “I am away to Rath Dínen,” he said.  “I have been remiss.”

“Indeed you have been,” Nerdanel agreed.  “But I am certain she will not begrudge you one merry evening with friends.”

Imrahil left the Steward’s House and made for the courtyard, descending through the seventh gate and turning his steps toward the the grand complex of silent mausoleums built into the mountainous backbone of the city.  It was usually his custom to visit the tombs immediately upon his arrival, but he had been delayed this time by glad company.  Even so, as his wife had said, he did not expect it would be held against him.

The porter at Fen Hollen roused himself and unlocked the gate without a word.  He had been guarding the Steward’s Door for many years and recognized the Prince of Dol Amroth by sight.  Imrahil had been allowed his irregular visits to Rath Dínen since permission had first been granted by Denethor nearly forty years ago.  To his knowledge he was still the only one so permitted to enter the tombs at will, save the Steward and the King himself.

It was a lonely walk down that forsaken street.  As he entered the House of the Stewards, Imrahil lit a lamp to augment the cold light of the sun pouring through the skylight in the dome of the roof.  The withered trunk of the Dead Tree now lay silently upon a bier of stone in the center of that space beneath the dome, the floor around it still scarred and scorched black from the funeral pyre of Denethor.  He was now buried with the honor due his rank in an alcove nearby, the last of the Ruling Stewards, but Imrahil did not feel compelled to linger there.  His feelings for his grim brother-in-law had always been conflicted, and he had not yet quite forgiven him for the ruin he had attempted to visit upon his family in his last madness.

Instead Imrahil stopped where he always did, beside the vault and effigy of Finduilas, his sister.  He had never been able to completely understand the strange and devoted love which had bound her to Denethor.  He would have preferred to have her buried in Dol Amroth, the home she had pined for, but he knew Finduilas would not have wished to abandon the place she had chosen in Minas Tirith, though it had sickened her to death.  Whatever his faults, she would have wished to lie beside her husband.

“Ah, Fin,” he sighed, sweeping the dust from her tomb with his hand.  “As often as I have wished you back again, I have never felt it so keenly as today.  Minas Tirith will soon be everything you ever wanted it to be.  I have looked after your son as best I could, as I promised.  He is quite happy with his new wife, though he has yet to produce grandchildren for you.  I now have two, a son by Elphir and a daughter by Lothíriel.  She is very young yet, but she already has as free a spirit as you had.”

He paused, his words swallowed by the utter emptiness of the place.  It was perhaps pointless, the attempt to bring news and comfort to the dead, but for a moment it made Finduilas alive again, if only in his thought.  It was admittedly more for his comfort than for hers, for she was no longer alone.

Near at hand, a ceremonial tomb had been carven for Boromir.  It contained no trace of his body, but only the broken Horn of Gondor which he had carried at his death.  The stonework depicted three scenes from his final quest with Gandalf’s Fellowship of the Ring, his sounding that horn at their departure from Rivendell, again in the darkness of Moria, and the last during the battle at Parth Galen.  The heroic end of Boromir of Gondor had already become something akin to legend in the wake of the war.  Though they had long despaired of recovering his remains, Imrahil felt certain that whatever the fate of the spirits of Men, Finduilas had found her son.

He did not stay long.  He never did; the awful solemnity of the place made him restless and in need of more lively company.  As he took his leave yet again, Imrahil at last found it in his heart to acknowledge Denethor, however briefly.

“My lord brother,” he said, “may you find in death the peace which eluded you in life.”

It would have pleased his sister.

As he returned from the tombs, Imrahil found Ivriniel waiting for him outside Fen Hollen, as striking as ever in a lavishly embroidered gown of indigo blue and grey, a fine veil of silver over her hair.

“Paying your respects yet again, I see,” she said.  “You have always been so much more faithful than I.”

“Finduilas would not fault you for having no love for the place,” Imrahil said, allowing her to take his arm.  “Indeed, if your places had been exchanged, I expect she would have visited you even less.”

Far below, the trumpets sounded at the Gate, announcing the arrival of the party from Emyn Arnen.

“It would seem our celebrated nephew has arrived at last,” Ivriniel smiled.

They returned to the Citadel courtyard where they had only to wait as the small mounted company wound their way up the busy city streets.  They were hailed as they passed, for in spite of all the other social upheavals in Gondor at present, the people’s love for the Prince of Ithilien was unaffected and unambiguous.  The majority of their companions remained to encamp on the Pelannor beneath white and silver banners.

When at last they had left their horses at the stables and climbed up through the seventh gate, Imrahil was ready to welcome his sister’s son with open arms, embracing him in an honest and extremely indecorous fashion.

“Faramir!” he said when they had released one another.  “We still see far too little of you!”

“Yes, it seems fate would have it so,” Faramir agreed with irrepressible good humor, “setting such weighty duties for us at opposite ends of the land.  You might come to Emyn Arnen more often if we could but pry you away from your beloved sea shore.”

“I must admit the thought of visiting both you and our new friends the Woodland Elves at once is an intoxicating prospect.”  

Faramir had always shared Imrahil’s abiding interest in all things Elvish, much more so than his brother Boromir.  They had spent many delightful evenings together during the boys’ infrequent visits to Dol Amroth, pouring over the old legends and learning what could be known of the lineages of the great Elvish kings of ages past.  Now it seemed those legends had sprung again to life all around them.

“Forgive me for neglecting you, Lady Éowyn,” Imrahil said, extending a familial embrace to her as well, though with a great deal more restraint.  

“I do, and readily, my lord,” she said, accepting his endearments.  “I know well how beloved my husband is.”

Their company also included Elphir’s wife, Lady Marien, and their son, Alphros, who had lately been visiting their cousin in Ithilien.  The boy was a bit short for his eight years, but that was typical of their family, as Thranduil had surmised.  He would come to match his peers in due time.  At the moment, however, he looked nothing like a young prince of Gondor, clad instead like a proper little woodland warrior in grey, green and brown.  There was even a circlet of twisted wire on his brow, and an impressively carven wooden sword on his belt.

“Grandda!” he said, hurrying toward Imrahil, too excited to manage more than a sloppy version of the deferential etiquette his grandfather’s rank required.  “Where is the Elvenking?  Have you brought him with you?”

Imrahil laughed.  “I very much doubt that anyone could ‘bring’ the Elvenking anywhere unless he came of his own will.  He has accompanied us, yes, but he and Legolas are quite busy just now running their dogs, or at least they were when last I saw them.  You will meet him in good time, I promise you.”

“What is he wearing?” Elphir asked his wife.

“The Elves of Ithilien have all but adopted him,” Lady Marien explained.  “They were so enchanted by his enthusiasm that they took special care to have him equipped as one of their own.  I am certain we shall hear of nothing but the Elves and their king for many months hence.”

The entire party took themselves to the Steward’s House where the midday meal had been set out for them.  Alphros dominated his father’s time with all he had to tell of his stay in Ithilien.  Imrahil and Faramir had much to discuss, but they saved the gravest matters for another time.  At present there was a great deal to hear about the progress being made against the lingering enchantments in the deep places of Ithilien, particularly around the mouldering heap that had been Minas Morgul.  It was slow going, but the Mirkwood Elves — especially Legolas — had an intimate understanding of enchanted forests and how to properly cleanse them.

The day was drawing on to mid-afternoon when the Pelannor erupted in the glad blasting of battle horns.  Rohan had arrived.  Lady Éowyn greeted her royal brother on horseback and led him and his company through the north gate of the Rammas Echor where they would set their pavilions beside those of Faramir’s people.  Imrahil and Nerdanel had been lingering on the green as well, ready to welcome their daughter and her family.

All ceremony quickly dissolved into the practical business of erecting the camp.  Queen Lothíriel turned her horse away from her husband for a moment to join her parents, leading her daughter’s pony by the halter rein.  Imrahil was ready to embrace her as she dismounted.

“Good day, father,” she said warmly, returning his affections.  “Rohan has many charms, but I cannot deny that it is refreshing to see you and Gondor again.”

“Your mother tells me you have adapted well,” Imrahil commended her.  Indeed, she looked her part.  Her raven hair was plaited in the Rohirric fashion, her gown adorned with bold patterns of knotwork.  “But enough about us; please reintroduce me to my granddaughter.”

Little Elfirien was looking at them severely from atop her pony, already adopting at will the bearing of a princess.

“This is your Grandfather Imrahil from Dol Amroth by the sea,” Lothíriel told her in a very clear and deliberate tone.  “He came to see you once before, but you were too young to remember.”

Elfirien scrutinized her grandfather with a narrow stare.  “Mama da?” she asked in that fractured dialect only parents understand.

“Yes, he is,” Lothíriel confirmed.  “Will you come down?”

Still unsure of this new relation who was little better than a stranger, Elfirien instead held out her arms to her grandmother whom she had seen much more recently.

“I am certain she will come around to you in time,” Nerdanel consoled her husband, lifting the child off the pony and onto her hip.  

Before Imrahil had a chance to respond, Elfirien was seized by frenzied excitement and demanding to be put down, pointing and babbling so quickly that even her mother could not follow.

Imrahil looked up and saw Thranduil and Legolas approaching them.  At first glance, the Elvenking was clad no differently than any other of his companions, but a closer look revealed his jerkin to be highlighted with finer cloth, extensive embroidery, and other subtle embellishments.  In any case, his presence was so intense that he could never have been mistaken for anyone else, whatever he may be wearing.

Elfirien ran toward him as if he had been a favorite uncle.  Thranduil did not object, and gladly swept her up into his arms.  “Well met again, little butterfly!” he said.  “I promised we would be here when you arrived in Gondor, and here we are.”

“She seems to prefer your company to mine,” Imrahil complained with a smile.

“Forgive me the indulgence, Imrahil,” Thranduil said.  “Children have been too few in Lasgalen for too long.  Look what I have for you, little one.”  He set her down and produced the silver pendant and chain he had brought from Pelargir.  “This is the Balan whom we call Tauron.  Your grandfather calls him Oromë, and your father calls him Béma.”

“Béma!”  Elfirien’s enthusiasm made it clear that this Vala featured in many favorite nursery tales.  She immediately held up her hair to allow Thranduil to put the chain about her neck.

“You will surely spoil that child before the week is out, my lord,” Nerdanel said, shaking her head.

“Perhaps,” Thranduil agreed.  “I have paid my dues with this one,” he said, nodding at Legolas, “and now I may enjoy their smiles and return them to their parents when they become unpleasant.”

Lothíriel’s dark stallion snorted and stamped irritably, as if he expected a greeting as well.  Thranduil quipped at him sharply in Sindarin, but then smiled.  “I know this beast, my lady.”

“I took the liberty of riding him south that I might return him to you, my lord,” Lothíriel said.  “He was quite piqued when you left him for Fréawyn.”

“That I can believe.  Maethor has always been a jealous creature.  I trust he behaved himself in a manner befitting the Queen of the Rohirrim.”

Rohan had not come unprepared.  Several large wains were being secured and unhitched, conspicuously loaded with barrels of ale.  They were of varied shapes and sizes bearing all manner of marks and seals, each promising a festive surprise.

“Son of Rohan,” Imrahil smiled, clapping Éomer on the shoulder and eyeing the barrels hungrily, “now the celebration can truly begin.”

Éomer laughed.  “We are happy to play our part, lord father,” he said, “but I am afraid we cannot take full credit for the bounty.”

There were indeed some strange names branded onto some of the more peculiar barrels, establishments such as “The Golden Perch,” “The Green Dragon,” and “The Prancing Pony.”  Those must have come from much farther north, and Imrahil was not surprised to recognize a small party of Dúnedain among the riders, as well as two small but unmistakable figures dressed in the livery of kings.

“Master Peregrin!” Elessar greeted them warmly.  “Master Meriadoc!  I am so pleased you were able to make the journey.”

“We never considered otherwise,” Pippin assured him.  “Although we would not have been able to bring quite so many gifts without the help of your Rangers.”

“Sam sends his regrets, though,” Merry said.  “His wife will have another baby very soon, and he couldn’t see leaving her for a party, no matter how grand.”

Imrahil was pleased to see the Periain as well.  It was only fitting that as much of the original Fellowship of the Ring as possible be present for the occasion, and their infectious energy would doubtless do much to keep the spirit of the celebration alive despite a few troublemakers.

“You remember Imrahil of Dol Amroth, of course,” Elessar said.

“Of course!” Pippin smiled.  “Although, with so many kings and princes and lords and ladies in one place, it may be difficult to remember everyone.”

“We had best refrain from prattling long titles and grand pleasantries at one another, or this New Year will digress into something resembling an Ent moot,” Merry agreed.

“Like her,” Pippin continued, catching sight of Ivriniel.  “Who is the mutton dressed as lamb?  I can’t recall her name.”

Imrahil’s lip curled in wry amusement.  “She is my sister,” he said.

Merry swatted Pippin in the ribs.  “You don’t have to say everything you think, you know.”

The spontaneous celebration which had sprung up around the Rohirric camp lasted long into the dark of evening, a scene of bright campfires, simple food, lively song, and good fellowship.  Imrahil enjoyed having his family reunited again, however briefly, although his granddaughter had not yet had her fill of Thranduil’s company.  The other children of Rohan seemed drawn to him as well, their parents warily following the example of their king and queen who obviously trusted these Elves with their princess.  The crooked tales of Dernhere of the haunted wood seemed to be finally setting themselves right.  The children were intent upon teaching Thranduil their language and songs, and demanding to know their “Elf names.”  Legolas’ fox was slinking and bounding through the thicket of small hands desperate to stroke him, at once encouraging and evading their attentions.

Just as some were considering retiring to bed, the north gate of the Rammas Echor was opened once again and a lusty chorus of Dwarf song announced the arrival of Lord Gimli of Aglarond with his people.  Several handsome draft horses pulled a great wain with a mysterious load cloaked in canvas.  Gondor welcomed them with hearty cheers, because everyone in Minas Tirith already knew that they came bearing the grand new gates of the city.  With them came King Thorin of Erebor and King Bard of Dale with their attendants.

Much as they would have enjoyed making merry, the Dwarves set to their task immediately.  The ponderous barrier was hauled aside to allow them access to the work site.  By morning all would be ready for the grand rededication.

Imrahil and Nerdanel retired to their quarters then, as did many others, leaving the field to those more tireless than they.  After all, this was only the beginning, and they would be hard pressed to keep pace with the King’s plans without taking some sleep.

Perversely, the long climb back to the Steward’s House at the pinnacle of the city reinvigorated Imrahil’s mind, and he slept fitfully.  After a few hours he slipped out of bed, pulled on his tunic and cloak, and went in search of the open air.

Dawn was still far off.  The wind in the mountains was crisp and clean, rushing down into the valley.  The sky was clear and glowing with stars, casting everything in a silvery blue light.  But as he approached the edge of the courtyard to look out over the expanse of the city, Imrahil was surprised to find that he was not alone.  

“Sleep eludes you as well?” Faramir smiled.  

“It must be all the excitement,” Imrahil said, leaning on the wall beside his nephew.  The intriguing sounds of Dwarvish tools echoed far below, though all curious glances were foiled by a vast shroud of tent cloth illuminated by the small dancing lights of their work lanterns.  “I feel I am living my old nurse’s stories.”

“Stories you eventually told to us.”

“I am certain I did not do them justice,” Imrahil confessed.  “Perhaps the experience is already familiar to you who enjoy the enviable company of your new neighbors.”

“Perhaps ‘familiar’ is not quite the appropriate word,” Faramir said, “but I have certainly grown to appreciate the Elves’ presence here.  I hope I do not live to see them leave us.”

“I hear you have finally finished rebuilding in Emyn Arnen.”

“It was fortunate the essential structures were largely intact, especially since every stonemason in the country has been sorely overworked since the war.  It is nothing beside Minas Tirith, but our little palace is grand enough for us.  You must come see it before you return to Belfalas.  And while you are there, you must see Legolas’ house as well.  It is true that these silvan Elves dislike stonework, but they can bend and shape wood to any purpose imaginable.  Their carpentry is so precise that hardly a nail was required, and the whole structure looks as if it might have simply grown from the hillside.”

“There has been no trouble cleansing the place?”

“As I say, Legolas has that process well in hand,” Faramir assured him.  “I do as I am told and all ends well.  Ithilien is a magical place now, and I will be very happy to raise my children there.”

“I do envy you that,” Imrahil smiled.  “I hope we shall all have peace enough for you to enjoy these coming years.  That, of course, brings me to less pleasant matters.  I have not yet had occasion to discuss it with the King, but perhaps you can tell me what truth there is in these rumors about Khand.”

Faramir sighed heavily.  “Karzik has actually sent an emissary to Elessar.  He is better mannered than any of us expected of a Variag, but it is clear that they have designs on Harondor.  Elessar is not likely to cede it to them, and I suspect the emissary's true purpose is to gauge Gondor’s readiness to wage war.  They have managed to seize everything in Harad, but surely even Karzik must hesitate before risking everything for a barren waste like Harandor.”

“We can only hope,” Imrahil agreed.  “I certainly have no desire to shed blood for it, but I would not have Gondor diminished nor the King shamed.”

“Indeed not.”

They were both distracted then by the faint sound of song on the air.  Imrahil glanced down at the stables below, certain he recognized the voice.  “There,” he said, pointing out the figure on the street.  “It is Thranduil.”

Faramir laughed quietly.  “Six years ago you knew nothing about him, and now you are utterly fascinated.”

“Six years ago he was nothing but an obscure name in the chronicles of Isildur, and now he is here, walking our streets,” Imrahil insisted, unashamed of his enthusiasm.  “Lord Elrond and the others stayed too briefly for me to properly appreciate them.  I sincerely hope Thranduil is in no hurry to return to the north.”

The Elvenking seemed not to notice them.  He had clearly been to visit his horses, and perhaps that was all the rest he required.  He lingered at the wall now, as they did, taking in the moonlit view.  One could almost see the whole region from that height -- especially if one was blessed with Elven sight -- the city, the Pelannor, Osgiliath, Ithilien, and the black mountains of the conquered and gutted land of Mordor.  Those peaks were quiet now, but no less imposing.  Imrahil wondered what Thranduil might be thinking as he looked out over that landscape.  Was he remembering the last time he had seen those mountains, three thousand years before?

Faramir prodded him in the ribs, interrupting his aimless thoughts.  In a moment Imrahil saw what had alarmed him.  A gang of young stable hands had gathered ominously in the shadows, and now they rushed the Elvenking with cudgels before either Faramir or Imrahil could shout a warning.

Thranduil was uncharacteristically unarmed, but that seemed to make no difference.  He spun around, slamming the first of his assailants into the ground without breaking the force of the charge, and then proceeded to soundly beat the others with the handle of the hayfork they had intended to use against him.  The whole fracas was over in seconds.

Imrahil and Faramir ran headlong through the gate, proceeded by two of the guards on duty there.  Thranduil stood unharmed and unconcerned amid a minor scene of bloody devastation as they approached, and he readily surrendered the hayfork to the soldiers.  It would have been laughable had not the indignity been so horrifying.  

“They will live,” the Elvenking said, “although I confess I may have ruined some noses and broken a few teeth.”

“That will surely be the least of their troubles!” Imrahil insisted as the guards gathered the five dazed young men from the pavement.  “In the morning they will know the King’s judgement.”

Thranduil frowned.  “I would not have Elessar judge them too harshly,” he said.  “They are young and foolish, and by the smell of them I suspect this ridiculous plot was hatched in a tavern.  I was in no danger.”

“Perhaps not, my lord,” Imrahil said, “but I do not expect Elessar to tolerate such heinous attacks upon his guests, however ill-conceived.”  

Falathar was uncomfortable in the city.  He did not like to be so far removed from the seat of his influence, nor quite so near the King’s.  There was a fluttering unease in the back of his mind, as if he had already jumped and it remained to be seen whether he would land on his feet.  He must not dwell upon it.  He had everything to lose.

As much as he would have liked to be in bed, he had business to conduct.  There was no better time than the present when most of the rest of the population had exhausted themselves and prying eyes were few.  His quarry waited for him in the shadows behind the inn on Rath Celerdain, an imposing figure of a man, thick and broad with a great mane of dark hair tied behind his shoulders.  He had the air of a savage who, although he had recently acquired the civility expected of refined societies, had lost none of his brutality.  He was the only Variag in Gondor, Gustîg, the emissary from Khand.  If Falathar had been a proper Gondorian lord, they would have been little better than strangers.  Instead, they were already far more familiar than Falathar would have anyone know.

Gustîg smiled grimly as Falathar approached.  “How easily the traitor is concealed in this crowd,” he said in his conspicuous Southron accent.  “I trust you have not forgotten your pledges to my master.  One could almost forgive you for thinking better of this mad plot of yours when one considers the wrath of Elessar if you are discovered.”

“I do not fear Elessar,” Falathar insisted, which was a blatant lie.  He did not respect Elessar, or Thorongil, or Aragorn, or whatever he called himself from day to day, but he did fear him.  “He is only a man.  One could almost have forgiven you and your lord if you had despaired when the Dark Tower fell.  It is no small thing to choose the wrong gods.”

Gustîg shrugged, the starlight glinting on the chain and large crystal pendant on his chest.  “We need no gods now.”

It was difficult to argue the point, considering their lightning conquest of the south.  It was little wonder that Karzik and his compatriots considered themselves invincible.  They had survived when Sauron had not, and now flourished amid the debris of Mordor’s fall.  Elessar had been content to simply observe as the diverse tribes of Haradrim fought among themselves.  Now the fighting was over and the Variags had taken everything.  Their victorious armies were looking to the north, and Gondor faced a rival power.

“Elessar will never let you take Harondor, you know,” Falathar said.  “He is too proud to allow it.”

“He may yet,” Gustîg mused, apparently unconcerned, “if his own house is in disorder.  You will see to that, of course.”

“My purposes are my own,” Falathar insisted.  “You will remind Karzik that I am no tool of his.”

“As you value your daughter’s well-being, you will not utter his name with such contempt again,” Gustîg growled.  

Falathar bit his tongue and fumed.  He was being squeezed on both sides.  He knew his son-in-law well enough to know that the Lord of Khand would not hesitate to throw him to Elessar out of spite if he began refusing their illicit privileges and illegal commerce through Pelargir.  This venture must succeed or the dance would truly be over.

Gustîg seemed to recognize his difficulties.  “Put your son on the steward’s seat,” he said, almost reassuringly.  “End this trouble for all of us, and things can be as they were before.”

Falathar’s mouth twisted into an obscene distortion of a smile.  How easily that barbarian said it.  Although he had already decided upon this course of action himself, he could not help resenting how little the Variags considered the blood which must be spilt to accomplish that end.  “It will be done,” he said grimly.  The pieces were already in motion.  “I trust Karzik remembers his obligations to me.”

Gustîg glowered at him, probably considering any obligations to be beneath his master’s dignity.  “He does.”

Doubtless Fíriel had seen to that.  Falathar’s daughter had always been proud, and devoted to her family above all else.  Whatever others may say, she had not been given to Karzik against her will, and she knew how to manage her unruly husband, at least insofar as he could be managed by anyone.  She tolerated his harem and his other intemperances with a queen’s grace, and was rewarded with his loyalty and even a certain amount of respect.  She would see to it that her father was given sanctuary in the south should everything else go wrong.

What a miserable prospect that was.  It would not, must not go wrong.

Early in the morning, Elessar heard the special case against the stable hands who had egregiously attacked the Elvenking during the night.  As Imrahil had predicted, the King was mortified and proportionately furious.  Thranduil, however, was still in an extraordinarily magnanimous mood and advocated for mercy.  They were young and misguided, he reasoned, and the Elves of Gondor would win no friends with harsh punishments.  The accused had sobered considerably during the intervening hours, and wisely held their tongues.  Elessar relented, but only slightly, sentencing them to simple imprisonment for the duration of Thranduil’s visit.  Later it was widely rumored that the Elvenking had condescended to visit the young men in their cells and speak at length with each in turn.  After an entire age on the throne, Imrahil mused, Thranduil had clearly mastered the art of kingcraft.

Queen Undómiel had not her elder’s serenity.  Her countenance was dark as she stood beside the King while all gathered for the otherwise festive occasion of the Rededication, her patience clearly at an end.  Elessar had recovered his composure for the sake of the ceremony, resplendent in his black and silver robes of state, but it was painfully clear that the royal couple would have words on that score when the formalities were concluded.

The ceremony was quickly coming to order under the capable guidance of a legion of organizers, and was nearly as grand as the coronation had been.  Every wall and window in the city was hung with proud banners and heraldry, ribbons and pennons.  The gathering was itself a triumph, Men and Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits, five kings and three ruling princes, such as had not been seen in one place since the war.  With the field full of the King’s guests, the population of the city leaned out of windows, stood upon the walls, and crowded into the lower streets to see what they could.  Unfortunately for Imrahil, he was now paying the price for his sleepless night, and he found it difficult to attend all the details of the proceedings.

The King made an impassioned speech about the origins of the city, the first kings and the heritage of Númenor.  He recalled how the city had been renamed Minas Tirith a thousand years ago as it stood the long watch over Mordor during the last age.  Now its watch was ended, and he solemnly declared that henceforth the King's city would be known again as Minas Anor, the name given at its founding.

Gimli the Dwarf proudly pulled a flaxen rope which brought the great canvas veil fluttering to the ground at last.  The Gates shone blindingly bright in the sun, made entirely of mithril, a startling and magnificent contrast to the impervious black stone of the Othram.  After an initial intake of breath, the crowds on both sides of the wall roared with enthusiastic applause.  Trumpets sounded and an impressive ensemble of minstrels struck up a spirited tune.

The Dwarves had done the job exceedingly well.  Within the framework of the gate were cast exquisite panels depicting scenes from the history of Gondor, the topmost being Elendil and his sons, the last the Fellowship of the Ring and the crowning of Elessar.  The great locks were then undone and the gates swung smoothly open to admit the population to the King’s reception.

It was a lavish but very informal affair on the common areas of the Pelannor.  Nobles and commons alike mingled together and sat on the grass, enjoying the beautiful spring weather.  Those who were permitted to attend were specifically those who would not be able to travel to Cormallen, the crippled, the very old, the very young, and those who could not be spared from their duties in the city.  The King did not wish to see anyone cheated of the grand occasion because of their circumstances.

Servants wandered through the crowds bearing large trays of food and drink as the minstrels continued their playing with astonishing energy.  It was much finer fare than that to which the ordinary citizens were accustomed, with an almost obscene abundance of meat, cheese, and wheat bread.  Some of it was genuinely Elvish, including the intriguing sweet buns which occasionally contained a gold coin.

Imrahil was standing with the King when the Queen approached them.  She had been smiling for her people for an hour and now clearly wanted a moment with her husband.  Imrahil moved to discreetly step away, but Elessar stopped him.

“No, Imrahil,” he said.  “This will concern you as well.”

“I would have you remove Baldor to Lamedon at once, my lord,” Arwen said brusquely so that she might be heard over the pipes and drums.  “I am certain he incited those young men to attack King Thranduil, and I would not risk him bringing any more dishonor upon your house.”

“If Baldor dishonors anyone’s house,” Elessar countered, “it is his own, not mine.  In any case, the young men in question deny his involvement, and the Lord of Lamedon has thus far abided by the terms of his continued presence among us.  It would be unjust of me to do any less.”

The Queen scowled, but could not dispute the fact.  “I expect worse will come if we do not remove him.”

“Or perhaps we may hope that the King’s law commands enough respect to discourage any more rash exploits,” the King insisted.  “We cannot make judgements against what may be.  Do not think it does not irk me, but King Thranduil himself was gracious enough to take no offense.  The matter is resolved.  Let us not draw undue attention to the incident.”

Arwen was clearly not satisfied, but she would not defy him in public.  “If that is your will, my lord,” she said.  “But I beg you would set guards to watch him.”

Aragorn smiled mischievously.  “The fact that you have not already observed them tells me they are doing their work very well indeed.”

She seemed reassured by that.  “Of course, you have already been very thorough.  I do not know why I expected otherwise.  I will abide by your decision, but I have borne that man’s insolence long enough.”

“I know, my love,” the King said, taking her hand sympathetically.  “Do not let him steal your joy.  I will deal with him in due time.”

Imrahil was distracted then by the approach of Ivriniel and Beleg, both of whom seemed to be in refreshingly good spirits.

“Brother Imrahil!” Beleg called to him, waving a mug of ale with his good arm, his abbreviated one wrapped warmly around his wife.  “Come, tell us the truth of the matter.”

“The truth of what?” Imrahil asked, bemused.

“Come now,” Ivriniel said, her eyes sparkling.  “We have heard the incredible account of what happened last night, how ten of Baldor’s ruffians dared draw blade against King Thranduil, and that he dispatched them all with hardly an effort!”

“No one was dispatched,” Imrahil insisted, “and they were only five stable boys with clubs and a hayfork.  Elessar has them in prison.”

“Oh.”  Ivriniel looked sincerely disappointed.  “That does make the tale less romantic.  No one writes a ballad about a hayfork.  Still, I imagine even ten armed men would be no challenge for him.”  She glanced across the field at the Elvenking with conspicuous admiration.

“No doubt,” Imrahil agreed flatly, a little embarrassed by his elder sister’s ludicrous flirtation, though her husband did not seem to mind.  “Let us pray we never have need to confirm his prowess.”

“What a folly that was.  What could they have been thinking?”

Imrahil shrugged.  “Thranduil himself asked Elessar for clemency because it seemed that ale had done a great deal of their thinking for them.”

“Ill-equipped and drunk!” Beleg laughed.  “My dear, I am afraid no part of this affair is worthy of a ballad.”

Nerdanel appeared at Imrahil’s side and slipped her arm around his.  “These are wonderful,” she said, handing him a pastry.  “I have sent a servant to discover the recipe if he can.  With any luck, it will not require some mysterious Elvish magic.”

“Indeed,” Imrahil agreed with a smile.  “It may prove very expensive for me to have them regularly sent from Ithilien for you.”

She laughed.  They both knew she would never ask for anything so impractical, but that he would not deny her if she did.

“Tell me what else you have discovered during your foray into the public,” Imrahil said playfully.  It was easier to let her keep him abreast of all the best gossip.  “Unless, of course, you were completely distracted by sweets.”

“The Elves and the Dwarves seem to enjoy a more agreeable relationship than legend would have us believe,” she said.  “They are by no means the best of friends, but they do not seem abhorrent to one another, with perhaps a few exceptions.  Perhaps we may attribute that to the good influence of Legolas and Gimli.”

“Perhaps,” Imrahil agreed.  “To judge by what I have heard, that must be a recent development.”

“King Thranduil may have made light of that incident last night,” Nerdanel continued, “but his guard are of quite a different temper.  They will not leave his side for a moment, and they bristle like badgers when anyone approaches him.  His manservant insists upon tasting all his food despite the unlikelihood of any poisoning attempt here.”

“Yes, Gwaelas,” Imrahil said, remembering the Elf’s name.  “If someone tries to poison anyone at this event, we are all at risk.”

“Lord Erellont is paying an extraordinary amount of attention to our Lady Éowyn,” she said, abruptly changing the subject.  “He seems almost infatuated with her.”

“Many are,” Imrahil said.  After all, it was hardly to be wondered at.  “Poor Erellont.  Come, let us have a proper look at these gates.”

There was a perpetual crowd gathered around the city’s newest adornment, constantly shifting as those who had already inspected the details made way for newcomers.  The gates were actually more impressive upon closer inspection than Imrahil had expected.  Each figure in the crowd had been sculpted to an exacting standard despite the limited space available for the design.  “There!” he said, pointing at a recessed but regal figure in the coronation scene.  “I think that is supposed to be my likeness.  It is less impressive perhaps than that of Legolas, who I notice features prominently in very heroic pose, but that I think I may attribute to bias on the part of the craftsman.”

He elicited a wry laugh from both Legolas and Gimli, who stood nearby.  “I deny all knowledge of it,” Legolas insisted, though his smile was fleeting.  

It was so rare to see him in bad temper that Imrahil was immediately concerned, though he could guess the cause.  “It was truly unfortunate, what befell your father last night,” he said, moving closer.  “I hope you found the sentence satisfactory.”

“How can I not, when my lord father is prepared to absolve them?”  Legolas replied in a deceptively even tone.  It was clear that he was not satisfied, that he, like the Queen, had endured all the abuse he was prepared to tolerate.  “Fools,” he hissed unexpectedly.  “They are indeed fortunate he is still in such high spirits.  There was a time not long ago when they would have paid dearly for their audacity.  I sincerely hope they do not try his patience to the breaking point.”

“Might do them good,” Gimli said gruffly.  “Someone must teach them respect for kings, including their own.”

“That task belongs to Elessar,” Legolas insisted, “not to Thranduil.”

“Agreed,” Imrail said.  

“It must be very bitter for Arwen,” Legolas continued.  “She has not complained to anyone, but I am truly sorry to see her happiness marred by this senseless unrest.”  

“Let us hope it may yet come to nothing,” Imrahil said.  “As the Elves are known more widely in Gondor, Baldor’s rhetoric will cease to be credible.  It believe that was partly Elessar’s purpose in arranging this celebration.”

Legolas thanked him with a tolerant smile, but he would not be so easily put off his guard.

“I wish I might have a word with him,” Gimli said, fingering his ceremonial axe.  “I have quite a bit to say about the virtues of the Elves, and many arguments which I have had occasion to use against my father and the old guard of Erebor.  But I suppose people like that will not be convinced by anything but their own experience.”

Lord Baldor was conspicuous by his absence.  Perhaps it was wise of him to avoid the King’s events altogether if he felt incapable of keeping quiet, especially in the compromising light of recent events.  No one missed him.

Wandering aimlessly across the green with his wife on his arm, Imrahil surveyed the crowd.  King Thranduil seemed to be enjoying an animated conversation with his northern neighbor, King Bard of Dale, and the Hobbits, Meriadoc and Peregrin.  Ivriniel and Beleg were speaking to Faramir and Éowyn, and the Dwarves were largely keeping their own company.  Children scampered across the grass wearing chains made of the first spring flowers.  Jugglers and acrobats plied their trade hoping to attract some lucrative attention, although Elessar had certainly already paid them for their services.  The King and Queen were graciously receiving every citizen who approached them even though it seemed the endeavor would occupy them long into the evening.

“Come with me, my lord,” Nerdanel said, taking his hand and gently pulling him toward a lively game of rings which the Rohirrim had begun on the grass.  “Let us see if your arm is as good as it ever was.”

The event lasted all day and into the evening, a tedious social chore.  Despite the excellent food, Falathar was quite happy to retire at the earliest acceptable opportunity.  Erellont accompanied him, in a strangely wistful and melancholy mood.

“I saw you fawning over the Princess of Ithilien,” Falathar scolded him as they walked.  “In fact, I believe almost everyone saw you.”

“She is a very admirable lady,” Erellont protested.  

“This is no time for frivolous flirtations.  Surely you remember we are actually endeavoring to murder her husband.”

Erellont grimaced.  “I wish you would not remind me.”

“Now above all we must keep clear heads, and you will be the ruin of us all if you start clouding your mind with lust.  You must not be associated with them at all before we take action.”  Falathar smiled grimly.  “Baldor has positioned himself perfectly, the fool.  Did you hear that some of his compatriots actually dared to assault the Elvenking in the street last night?  The Queen is merely waiting for the slightest excuse to condemn him.  The right bloodshed at the right moment will be his ruin.”

Erellont again looked scandalized.  “You intend to waste the lives of these Elves to mask your purpose?”

“Our purpose,” Falathar corrected him, “and, yes.  It could not be a more perfect time.  There are masses of them here, and they have already been publicly threatened.  Whatever should befall them, Baldor will be suspected immediately.  Should Prince Faramir happen to come to harm, it will be merely a tragic accident.”

Erellont scoffed incredulously.  “Father, Elves have not been my study, but even I have seen enough to know that these are not benign scribes or musicians.  The Lasgalenath may seem peaceful now, but they are dangerous.  By all accounts, their king is ruthless.  Do not wake that beast.”

“You misjudge me, son,” Falathar said grimly.  “If I am to have my way, their celebrated king will never wake again.”

The enormous royal party left Minas Anor the following day.  The elaborately festooned column stretched for miles across northern Ithilien with the King, the Queen, and the royal guard at its head.  Everywhere the trees were in new leaf and flower, showing their best colors for the new year.

Riding with his household immediately behind Faramir and just ahead of Legolas and Thranduil, Imrahil could not help but notice how the ranks of the Elves swelled as they passed through the wood.  They flocked to their king with an enthusiastic devotion which spoke eloquently of his leadership.  Elessar’s reign was still young, but Imrahil was certain that he would also command that kind of allegiance in time.  It was inevitable for a man of his quality.

It was early evening when they at last reached the celebrated Field of Cormallen, ringed with trees bearing the yellow culumalda flowers which had given the place its name.  Large pavilions had already been erected along the edges of the site, each with the heraldic banner of the intended resident staked outside.  Many impressive outbuildings had been constructed in the surrounding forest, storehouses, stables, and stone ovens, an investment in what would surely be many public celebrations in years to come.

Another informal dinner was organized as the great lords settled into their quarters and the rest of the column arrived in the field.  Men and Elves who had gone ahead of everyone else had prepared fresh bread and game spiced with the sage, thyme, marjoram, and spring onions which grew wild throughout that country.  

Imrahil was very gratified when Ciryon brought their portions, hollow bowls of bread filled with fragrant morsels of meat.  The sun was quickly setting, and people were beginning to gather around the swarm of soldiers completing the preparations for the enormous bonfire at the center of the field.  “Come, wife,” he said jovially, handing Nerdanel her food when she had finished straightening her jewelry and veil.  “We would not want to miss the firing.”

“Indeed not,” she agreed, accepting her meal.

The impressive monument of logs and kindling had obviously been built to an exacting standard, standing over twenty feet high and crowned with a tall fir tree which had been culled from the forest especially for this purpose.  Dry and riddled with disease, it promised to burn dramatically.

When at last the sun had truly set and the stars had emerged, the royal trumpets blew a sudden call for silence.  It was the last night of the year, and it seemed only right that they savor the occasion for a few moments.  Then King Elessar, holding aloft a single torch in the gloom, lifted his voice over the crowd and solemnly repeated the words that the Eagles had brought to the city six years before.

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
 And the Dark Tower is thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
And your King hath passed through,
  and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
  all the days of your life.

And the tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
  and the City shall be blessed.

Sing all ye people!* 

Drumming that had begun softly now grew much stronger.  Merry and Pippin lit two torches from the King’s flame, ran to the great pile and set the kindling alight.  Fire spiraled upward along bundles of strategically-placed pine boughs, reached the brittle branches of the great fir tree, and a roaring column of flame shot skyward, almost blinding in its sudden brilliance.

There was some appreciative applause from the crowd, startled screams as something exploded overhead, and finally nervous laughter and lusty cheers as they all recognized the glimmering blue sparks for what they were.  Several more fireworks erupted in the sky, red, green, and gold, a special preparation from the Dwarves of Erebor.

Music began in all corners of the field, and several more fires were lit as the formalities dissolved into general gaiety.  Wine and ale were flowing freely, and there seemed not to be anyone among them who was not thoroughly enjoying himself as the disparate races and cultures celebrated together their common victory.  

“This is what I wanted this occasion to be,” Elessar said with a broad smile, watching the spontaneous dancing all around them, a large mug of ale in his hand.

Imrahil smiled as well.  “With any luck,” he said, “this experience may serve to improve the political climate going forward.”

“Precisely,” the King agreed.  “We have only to become familiar to one another.”

Snatches of Elven song came to them over the commotion, very different from the elevated style Imrahil had heard from the Queen’s companions from Rivendell.  The songs of Greenwood were militant and buoyant with an infectious rhythm and lyrics that were often grim and irreverent.  They were exactly the right people to tame Ithilien again, practical and full of irrepressible energy.

For a moment their voices rang clearer, proudly united in some new verses they had rendered into the common tongue for the benefit of their new friends.

The frost is slain by bloom of spring,
And in the north the birds take wing.
In Eryn Galen now they sing
the praises of the Elvenking!

He bore the frozen winter’s chill,
And reigns beneath the beeches still.
On Amon Lanc the niphredil
Now bloom to honor Thranduil!

At last the hopeless war is won,
And Gorthaur’s lair is overrun.
Lasgalen’s reign has just begun.
All hail King Oropherion!

“They are insufferably proud of him,” Imrahil observed.

“As well they should be,” Elessar agreed.  “Greenwood alone of all the Elven realms has been improved by the outcome of the war.  I shall be well pleased if history will remember my reign as fondly as they do his.”

Merry and Pippin were dancing atop a table, obviously quite drunk, and attempting to teach a mixed crowd of spectators the words to what could only be described as an aggressively lighthearted song.  Their audience, by no means completely sober, learned the chorus quickly enough, which gratified the Hobbits immensely.  Several raucous renditions ensued.

As the night advanced, the event seemed as perfect a success as could have been hoped for.  Loosened by drink and good company, everyone appeared to have shed for the moment whatever unreasonable reservations he might have harbored against his fellow merrymakers; Elves sang Dwarvish songs, a few brave Dwarves sang Elvish songs, and everyone sang the Hobbits’ songs.  It was easy to forget whatever cares might have seemed much more pressing a few hours ago, and which doubtless would resurface the following morning.  Perhaps those cares would not seem so significant in the first light of a new year.

Falathar wandered away from the noisy firelit field, away from the howling Rohirrim, away from the pompous Elvish ballads, away from the dogs snarling over carcasses of roast boar and stag not yet completely denuded of meat.  He took care to appear inebriated enough to go unnoticed by the few who crossed his path, carrying a mug of ale and respectable portions of bread and venison spitted on his dagger.  He knew he had gone deep enough into the wood when he felt the prick of steel on his back.

“Sheath your blade, you scoundrel,” Falathar commanded.  “You forget your place.”

“No more than you have forgotten yours.”  Radhruin put his knife away.  He was a creature of shadow now, like a wild animal disguised amid the trees.  He was covered with mud up to the belt, apparently to frustrate any sent which may alert the dogs.  “You said you would have instructions for me.”

“Indeed.  How well do you know the lay of this land?”

“I know it,” the corsair said flatly.  “I was here when the pavilions were raised, as you wished.”

“Excellent.”  Falathar realized that it must have been weary and stagnant work, observing the site while necessarily going unobserved.  Radhruin did have a lean and hungry look about him, which was why Falathar had brought some spoils.  He handed over the mug and the laden dagger.  “The details I will leave to your ingenuity, for you know your own business best.  You must arrange some grave accident or sabotage very soon which must absolutely be the death of Faramir, but which must appear to be directed against the Elvenking.  It would be best if you could kill him as well.  Suspicion will immediately fall in quite a different quarter.  I am not much concerned who else may come to harm, but Faramir must die.  I will choke you with gold if you can accomplish this.”

There was a long silence as Radhruin considered the commission, tearing the meat off the blade with his teeth, and looking at Falathar with something akin to disdain.  Then he seemed to forget him entirely, falling into deep thought.  “Yes,” he said at last, as much to himself as to his employer.  “I know how it may be done.”

“Do it soon,” Falathar insisted.  “The longer you linger in Ithilien, the greater our risk.”

But Radhruin did not seem to share his urgency.  He took his time now with what was left of his food, drained the ale and threw the mug at Falathar’s feet.  “It seems the risk is all mine,” he said, a sharp light in his eyes.  “Give me a pledge.”

“A what?”  Falathar was caught off guard and had little patience to spare.

“I have told you before, I am not your pawn to be used and sacrificed at will,” Radhruin insisted.  “What good is the word of a traitor and murderer to me?  Give me your signet ring.”

Falathar balked.  It was insufferable that this mercenary would dare to make such a demand of him, but once again it was impossible to refuse.  Worse, Radhruin was no fool and obviously knew the strength of his position.  Falathar did not like to leave his fate at the mercy of any man; everything he had done had been in an effort to free himself, yet he only seemed to become more entangled.  Clenching his jaw with impotent rage, he pulled off his silver signet ring and gave it to the corsair.

Radhruin jammed it onto his dirty finger with a maddening smile.  “Now you will think again before you denounce me,” he said.

A twig snapped, and they both spun around to find they were no longer alone.  Falathar was seized by panic as he recognized Lady Ivriniel’s husband, and the look of scandalized disbelief on his face made it clear he had heard too much.  Beleg’s features hardened as he realized his peril, and then he turned and bolted back toward the field.

“Stop him!” Falathar barked, but Radhruin had already thrown the dagger.  Beleg fell wounded, his cries for assistance drowned by a new volley of Dwarvish fireworks and the cheers of the spectators.  

Radhruin pounced on him and grappled violently with the old war veteran, who gave a good account of himself despite his missing hand and the knife in his leg.  He was calling for Elessar, for Imrahil, for Legolas and Faramir, for anyone who could hear.  Radhruin finally silenced him by kneeling on his back and wrapping an arm around his throat.  Before he lost consciousness, Beleg glared at Falathar and spat contemptuously into the dirt.  Radhruin broke his neck.

Falathar’s initial relief was soon soured by dread.  This could yet ruin everything.  The man’s absence would hardly go unnoticed.

“I can dispose of him,” Radhruin growled, sensing his dismay, already tying off the leg wound lest it leave a blood trail.  “Bring me a horse!”

*Obviously lifted directly from Return of the King.

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