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"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 taxing as they had been six 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 provided 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 spent 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 next 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.
Elphir entered the bath room, a stack of dispatches in his hand.
“Is it anything interesting?” Imrahil asked, 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 Captain Azruben. Apparently 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 a 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 elsewhere 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. “Bear with me, son,” he said. “We must all show our best faces today.”
Elphir left to continue overseeing 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 absently 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 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. Representatives of 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 snow began swirling in the wind, the silver trumpets sounded at the gates of the city. From his balcony, 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 a measure of childlike excitement.
Imrahil descended through the heart of the palace to the front doors, 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 may 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 Lothlórien 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 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 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 and irreproachably clean floors. 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 maids, 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 granddaughter is naught but two years old, and already she has been taught to sit a horse.”
“And very well, I am sure,” Imrahil said.
“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. “Regardless of the fashionable rumors Lord Baldor is bantering about, I may say that King 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 had seemed content in the supposition 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, and 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 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 exceedingly 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 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 was being carried out of the kitchen and arranged on the tables.
“I must not detain you further, my lord,” Gwaelas said. “We all have our duties to attend.”
“Indeed,” Imrahil agreed. “Tell King 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 from the forgotten places of the world 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. Considering 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 inside. 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 himself in her presence. Her red and gold 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 became 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 set with 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 have 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. 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. Both he and Legolas were crowned with sharp circlets of twisted silver leaves. At their heels came two startlingly large wolves which could rival even the great water hounds of Imrahil’s menagerie.
At once they clearly commanded the attention of the room. Thranduil was enormous, even by the standards of Gondorian men, a vibrant remnant of an Age long forgotten. 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, was 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 quieted, 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 all I have already seen 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 back to me 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. Farther south, we came through Fangorn Forest, which Legolas was most eager that I should see. The Onodrim were better company than I remembered.”
“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 they disappeared from Rhovanion,” 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. “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 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.”
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. Alternatively, it could be that Thranduil’s candor may be attributable to drink. He had already easily consumed a hero’s portion of wine, almost giving credence to some of the unseemly rumors Lord Baldor was spreading. 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 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 a mountain of 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,” he said. “The name Beleg 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 that 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 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 that 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.”
“Nor are they the only ones,” Nerdanel said, her fingers restlessly entwined 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 had 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.
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.
“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 cream. 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 loose 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.
“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.”
“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.”
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,
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
And the tree that was withered shall be renewed,
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,
He bore the frozen winter’s chill,
At last the hopeless war is won,
“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.
The first day of the new year dawned with a chill, but with great promise of a clear sky and a warm sun. Despite his good mood, Imrahil found he was extremely reluctant to leave the downy cushion and cocoon of bedding he and Nerdanel shared, but she dutifully prodded him upright.
“Go,” she said, clearly intending to remain abed herself. “You would not want to miss the hunt.”
Imrahil sighed and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Elessar keeps the hours of a much younger man,” he complained, but she was right. He would feel very old indeed if he failed to join the royal hunt.
He dressed softly for the occasion in the woodsman’s tunic Ciryon had laid out the night before. He splashed some water from the basin on his face and felt surprisingly invigorated. He bid his wife farewell, stepped outside their pavilion and breathed deeply the fresh and fragrant air of Ithilien.
Ciryon was waiting with his horse saddled and ready. Of greater immediate interest to Imrahil was the unexpectedly fresh breakfast he offered. It was a small and delicate-looking loaf of fine white bread on a silver plate, too simple to be only what it seemed, accompanied by a stirrup cup of wine.
“It seems the Elves have no need of sleep, my lord,” Ciryon explained, recognizing his curiosity. “They have taken the liberty of providing refreshment for the hunting party this morning.”
“Better and better,” Imrahil said, taking the convenient meal in hand. It was still warm. “I envy Faramir more each day.” The first bite revealed a savory filling of roast boar and apples worthy of any king’s table, and immediately he regretted not having a larger portion. But, of course, it would be ill-advised to eat heavily before a ride. All the Elvish dishes had developed an apparently effortless refinement that no doubt came of many years of practice and what was probably a natural desire for more interesting fare. They lived far too long to tolerate tedious food.
Imrahil threw back his wine and swung astride his horse just as he heard the drumming of hoofbeats in the grass behind him. He turned and saw Thranduil and Legolas riding toward him out of the sunrise.
“Come, Imrahil,” the Elvenking smiled, mounted on his fiery Elvish stallion, armed as his son with a heavy woodland bow and a bristling quiver of arrows. “A pristine day awaits. Let us make the most of it!”
Imrahil spurred his horse after them, and together they rode to the southern edge of the valley where King Elessar was waiting, past the center of the field where preparations were hastily being made for the entertainments of the day. A scaffold of prepared lumber was already mostly erected, the bones of what would soon be an enclosed arena and a large royal box on a dais. It would have to be large to accommodate all the crowned heads in attendance.
“Good morning, and a blessed New Year!” Elessar greeted them as they joined the gathering hunting party.
“Merethor veren!” Thranduil agreed, “although it seems a few of us are not yet feeling blessed this day.”
He meant, of course, the Hobbits. The periain were mounted, Peregrin with Faramir and Meriadoc with Éowyn. They were clearly anxious to accompany the hunt, but it was obvious they had not yet recovered from last night’s revelry. Thranduil inquired of his people who were present on foot, and one produced a flask and gave them to drink. Whatever the contents, it began restoring their vitality in moments.
“Hullo!” Merry exclaimed, returning the flask reluctantly. “I expect we will be needing more of that before the fortnight is past.”
There was a good deal of laughter and agreement among the company. Imrahil took note, intending to acquire some of that remarkable concoction along with Nerdanel’s new favorite pastries before the journey back to Belfalas.
The hunt commenced in the full light of the morning sun, later than a proper hunt ought, but it was in fact more a royal pastime than a serious chase. Legolas’ Elves and Faramir’s Ithilien Rangers went ahead to flush what game they could find. Aeglos the fox bounded after them through the undergrowth, managing to bag several stotes which would later be used to feed him and the dogs.
Tempted though he was to monopolize Thranduil’s company, Imrahil fell back and forced himself to take an interest in Elessar’s other guests. His natural curiosity made the task easier, and he allowed himself to be overtaken by King Bard of Dale. They had been introduced earlier, but had not yet had occasion to converse at length. “Good day to you, my lord!” he said brightly. “I would ride with you a while, if you will grant me the privilege of your company.”
“I will, and gladly,” Bard replied. He was still young, more or less the same age as Imrahil’s eldest son, brought to the throne by his father’s untimely death.
“Certainly it is our loss that your queen did not accompany you.”
“My Arndís is not fond of travel,” Bard explained, “and Gondor is still a very distant name in the north. She stayed with the children to govern in my absence.”
“The kingdom of Dale and the other northern realms are in many ways equally mysterious to us in the south,” Imrahil said. “We are fortunate indeed now to have the familiarity you have always enjoyed with the Elves of Greenwood.”
“King Thranduil can be a mercurial neighbor,” Bard confessed with a smile, “but it would be difficult to find a more reliable ally, in feast or famine.” Then he frowned. “Although it has been hushed up as much as may be possible, I have observed that King Elessar is having some difficulty reintroducing the Fair Folk in Gondor.”
“There has been more resistance than we anticipated,” Imrahil admitted. “The King hopes to resolve it soon.”
“Sooner rather than later,” Bard agreed. “Thranduil’s people are good and loyal friends, but they can be . . . volatile. It would be unwise to offend them.”
King Thorin and Gimli rushed by on their ponies, perhaps eager not to appear to be at any disadvantage beside their fellows mounted on taller beasts. Ahead, Thranduil and Legolas drew rein and allowed them to pass, the Elvenking obviously in no great hurry to share their company. The habits of a lifetime were slow to change.
The forests of Ithilien were indeed much changed since the war. The scars of the orc occupation were greatly diminished, and new growth was rebounding through fire-scorched areas, young saplings reaching for sunlight beside those venerable trees which had survived the dark times. Legolas and his Elves had indeed been productive. Doubtless Faramir was correct, and it would be well worth Imrahil’s while to visit Emyn Arnen before returning to the coast.
“Does the feast tonight depend on our luck this morning?” Pippin asked. He sounded worried. “At this rate, we may have to be very creative with cheese and vegetables.”
A wry chuckle ran through the company. “No, no,” Faramir assured him with a smile. “The feast has been well provided for. Anything we contribute will simply make a more extravagant supper.”
As if in answer to the Hobbit’s prayers, the hounds began baying in the forest ahead, and a horn sounded a terse call. It was boar. The entire company spurred their horses to greater speed through the undergrowth. The noise of the catch dogs attempting to subdue their quarry guided them around in a northerly arc as they caught up to the chase. The huge beast was crashing through the forest in heedless flight, apparently a mature male well worth the attention of the royal hunt.
Elessar loosed the first arrow, striking the boar behind the shoulder. His second shaft flew wide as his horse stumbled, but Éomer managed to hit it in the flank. Neither wound seemed to slow the boar’s progress. Faramir and Éowyn fell back slightly with the Hobbits, leaving the work for the unencumbered riders. Imrahil was determined not to attempt a shot of his own, content to let the larger crowns do battle for the honor of the kill. He saw Thranduil making his move, overtaking the others on the outside at what seemed a reckless speed. His mount was incredibly nimble, obviously well accustomed to woodland hunts. He let fly a shaft which struck its mark just behind the foreleg, the force of which would have felled a stag or a smaller boar, but the enormous animal found strength enough for a last desperate plunge through the scrub.
Elessar raised his hand and shouted some direction to the others as they approached a clearing. In a moment Imrahil saw what the rest of the party had seen, and he joined them as they fanned out on either side, herding their quarry forward. Thorin and Gimli, anticipating the direction of the boar’s flight, had already doubled back on their ponies and now stood together braced behind Thorin’s large battle axe, upon which a short lance had been mounted.
Enraged and harried by the dogs, the boar launched itself at the Dwarves, knocking them backward but impaling itself through the heart in the process. Gimli was quick to crawl to his feet and deal the final blow, severing the boar’s thick spine with his own axe, assuring a quick end to its struggle.
“You are fortunate not to have been crushed, my friends!” Elessar congratulated them. “That beast outweighs both of you together.”
“They are not called the Gonhirrim for nothing,” Legolas laughed. “They will not be crushed so easily.”
“Indeed, not,” Thorin agreed. He was proudly spattered with boar’s blood, and struck a royal pose with his grisly axe. “Thank you, my lords, for sending the animal to us.”
Returning to the festival grounds in triumph, the royal party dispersed each to his own quarters. There was just enough time to change into something more presentable before the main events of the day. There would be a brief flag parade before the games began, so it was their sovereign duty to appear to best advantage.
Ciryon was waiting when Imrahil returned, and helped him quickly into a stately white and grey tunic, a cloth of silver sash beneath his belt, a blue cloak on his shoulders affixed with his silver swan badge, the silver and pearl circlet of Dol Amroth on his brow. All that remained was to see himself mounted. Ciryon would await him in the royal box.
Imrahil’s mind was elsewhere as he left his pavilion and strode across the grass toward the stables hidden within the trees, drifting in a cloud of general contentment as a sweet spring breeze ruffled his cloak and swept loose blossoms from the trees. His reverie was suddenly broken by a loud commotion from inside the stables. That was Thranduil’s voice above all others, and he was thunderously angry. Imrahil’s Sindarin was not contemporary enough for him to catch more than a general sense of the rapid tirade, but it was plain that some mischief had been done. He quickened his pace, intending to address the incident as best he could on Elessar’s behalf, his previous serenity banished by a dull feeling of dread.
He burst through the door only moments later and found the splendid Elvenking and all his guard clustered around his great Rohirric mare, who appeared to be in some distress. “What has happened?” Imrahil demanded immediately. “Is anyone injured?”
“Someone has willfully lamed the king’s horse!” Gwaelas informed him as Thranduil regained his composure.
Two rather sheepish stable boys seemed to have been rendered mute by the prior outburst. Legolas bounded in through the opposite door, also drawn by the shouting.
Imrahil advanced to see the damage for himself. Thranduil lifted Fréawyn’s left front hoof to reveal the enormous nail which had been driven deep into the flesh. Blood was seeping from the wound.
“Who has done this?” Imrahil asked, rounding on the stable boys. “Did you see him?”
“He was dressed as the farrier, sir!” the older one insisted.
“That is no farrier’s nail!” Thranduil snarled, causing them both to flinch against the far wall.
Imrahil flinched with them in spite of himself, then motioned softly for silence. They would not discover anything useful from these two if Thranduil frightened the life out of them. An Elvish stablemaster arrived then with pincers, a hoof knife, salve, and a pail of salt water to attend the wound as best anyone could. Imrahil beckoned the boys a short distance away while the Elves were occupied. “How would you describe this mysterious farrier?” he asked them.
“He was tall,” the older one remembered, “with dark hair.”
That description fit the majority of men present at Cormallen, Imrahil thought, but he hid his impatience.
“He was very quiet,” said the younger one, “never a word to anyone. And he was a bit swarthy.”
That was not much better, but at least it was something. Imrahil thanked them and bid them return to their duties. They were quite happy to disappear into other stalls.
The nail was out now, a wicked iron thing that had been forged for heavy carpentry. The damaged hoof had been cleaned and was now being salved and bandaged.
“What did you get from them?” Thranduil asked. He was still smoldering, but seemed less explosive.
“Only that we should be alert for a tall swarthy man of taciturn disposition,” Imrahil said. The Elvenking mirrored his dissatisfaction. “I will inform Elessar and the King’s Guard. The soldiers will watch for him.”
“As will our people,” Legolas agreed grimly. “Any man willing to ruin so fine an animal out of spite may be capable of worse.”
“In that, at least, we seem to have been fortunate,” the stablemaster concluded. “I do not believe any lasting damage has been done to the hoof. With due care and attention, she should be mended in a matter of weeks.”
Thranduil was visibly relieved. “I am pleased to hear it,” he said.
“Shall I place a guard on her, aran nîn?” Dorthaer asked gruffly.
“No,” Thranduil decided. “Erthoron is enough. Find another stablemaster to assume his duties.”
“If I may say, my lords,” Erthoron continued, “the hairs I see caught on the nails of her hind shoe suggest our Fréawyn struck a blow of her own.” He assumed the classic ferrier’s position that would have been required to inflict the wound and tapped his forehead at the hairline. “I think your swarthy ruffian is now marked by a significant abrasion.”
“So much the better,” Thranduil said stiffly, though apparently somewhat gratified.
“I will include it in my report to the King,” Imrahil promised.
“Yes, inform the King when you may,” Legolas agreed, “but his Guard must be alerted immediately. I will see to that.”
There was little time to say more; their presence was required on the field in a few moments. Imrahil chose a fresh horse, but Thranduil was obliged to pull Maethor out of his trough for an additional duty before being retired for the day.
They quickly joined the resplendent column of royalty queuing outside, and each was paired with a footman bearing his flag on a lance. They paraded in stately fashion across the field and into the arena to the fanfare of trumpets and the energetic reception of the roaring crowd, King Elessar and Queen Undómiel, Imrahil and Nerdanel, Faramir and Éowyn, Thranduil, Legolas, Éomer and Lothíriel, Thorin, Gimli, Meriadoc and Peregrin, and Bard. That so many bench seats had been constructed in so short a time seemed miraculous, but was yet another manifestation of the exacting standards with which Elessar had planned every aspect of the celebration. After circumnavigating the arena three times so that they might be visible to all in attendance, they dismounted and climbed the short stairway to the covered dais where thrones had been set for them. The footmen mounted their colors into the ground at their feet, and then the games began.
The first event was the beginning of a much anticipated pilwë tournament which would proceed at intervals throughout the day. The ancient Gondorian game had enjoyed a resurgence of interest since Elessar’s crowning, which seemed perfectly appropriate as it had its origins literally in the roots of the Reunited Kingdom. This match was of particular interest to Imrahil, as it pitted his Swan Knights and his son Amrothos against Faramir’s Ithilien Rangers.
“Remind me, my lord, of the particulars of this game,” Éomer said, leaning toward Imrahil who was seated to his left. “My good queen has endeavored to explain it before.”
“It is a remembrance of Isildur’s theft of the last fruit of Nimloth, the white tree of Númenor,” Imrahil explained as the players took their places on the grass. “Two teams of seven men each attempt to take the yáva, the small white ball, through a gate at the opposite end of the field. The yáva may not be thrown or kicked, but only passed hand to hand. Cowardly blows are illegal, as is deliberate serious bodily harm, but only one score is required to win, so games are often brief and brutal.”
The King of Rohan nodded his approval. “This lot promises to give a fine spectacle. Are those your men, Imrahil? I recognize your son among them.”
“Indeed they are,” Imrahil smiled. Both teams were comprised of some of the broadest and burliest men either principality could boast. It was a friendly rivalry, but taken very seriously. Amrothos could not expect his blood to merit any special deference.
“I’ll wager Faramir’s men take the day,” Meriadoc ventured. “The Rangers are a cunning and crafty sort.”
“Would you care to risk some coin on that prospect, Master Holbytla?” Éomer asked mischievously. “It would perhaps displease my sister, but I am prepared to stake a gold piece on my lord father’s knights.”
“Done,” Merry agreed without hesitation.
Imrahil had only a moment to wonder about the propriety of doing anything so vulgar as gambling in the presence of the King and Queen before Thranduil boldly leaned forward from his place on Elessar’s opposite side. “Imrahil!” he called over the noise of the crowd. “Are you confident in your men? Legolas, of course, is loyal to Faramir, but I am inclined to wager against him.”
“Perfectly confident!” Imrahil assured him. It was true, although under the circumstances he could hardly have admitted otherwise.
The keeper threw the yáva into play from the sidelines, and the crowd roared as both teams charged at each other. Amrothos and the Swan Knights slammed into the Rangers like the heavy cavalry they were accustomed to being, while the Rangers seemed quicker on their feet, diving and twisting away from their opponents when they could. The Ranger who had initially caught the ball was immediately crushed beneath a pile of eager men, but one of his teammates fled the scene with a telltale flash of white clutched protectively against his chest. Two alert Knights gave chase and bowled him over, but he rolled and regained his feet to wild acclaim. Amrothos collided with him and dragged him to the ground, allowing another of the Knights to seize the yáva and sprint in the other direction.
Imrahil did not allow himself to show an indecorous amount of enthusiasm, although in other circumstances he would have loudly applauded his son’s aggression and teamwork. Beside him Nerdanel could barely keep her seat.
The match continued in that fashion for some time, with neither team able to gain a clear advantage. Injuries were sustained, but no man consented to quit the field. Informal tallies were made, speculating the fitness of each team going forward. Seeing at least two Knights favoring sore bones, Merry doubled his wager with Éomer who was too gallant to lose faith in his wife’s brother. The Rangers had also taken casualties, and Imrahil gripped the arms of his throne, still daring to hope for the best.
The end came suddenly, as if often did in that game. The Rangers’ greater agility won the day as one of their own broke free of the brawl and ran through the gateposts to victory. Imrahil sighed, accepting defeat with as much dignity as he could muster. The disappointment would have been bitter enough without having to watch Merry collect his winnings from the King of Rohan or endure the narrow glance Thranduil aimed in his direction.
“Do not be so crestfallen, Imrahil,” Elessar said as he applauded the victors. “Your men played well.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Imrahil replied graciously. “You are as generous as ever. But before the proceedings continue, I must inform you of an incident which occurred in the stables this morning. I believe it to be yet another deliberate affront committed against the Elvenking.”
“Why was I not told of this sooner?” the King demanded. The Queen stiffened in her seat.
“The Guard has been made aware,” Imrahil assured him. “A man was seen entering the stables in the guise of a farrier, and we believe it was he who lamed Thranduil’s horse.”
“Fréawyn, the grey mare?” Lothíriel interjected. “Someone has lamed her?”
“Who would dare?” Éomer seethed. “She is very near blood of the Mearas! Finer horses do not exist in Middle-earth. This man is not of Rohan, I assure you!”
“We did not suspect so, my lord,” Imrahil agreed. “What little description we have of him makes it extremely unlikely. The wound is serious, but it is the opinion of the stablemaster that no lasting damage has been done.”
“Does Thranduil know of this?” Elessar asked.
“It was Thranduil who discovered it,” Imrahil admitted, “and he was thus compelled to choose another mount for the ceremonies here.”
“I had wondered at that. The beast had only just had the sweat wiped from him.” Elessar shot a surreptitious glance at the Elvenking, who immediately met his gaze without turning. Thranduil was clearly aware of their conversation, though not inclined to take part. “What do we know of this man? Do we suspect him to be in league with the Lord of Lamedon?”
“Anything is possible, my lord,” Imrahil said. “The stable hands could not name him, and said only that he was a furtive man of dark complexion. Additionally, it is likely that he endured a kick to the brow before he fled.”
“Good of the horse to mark him for us,” Elessar agreed, though his voice was utterly humorless. He motioned to the guard standing at his elbow. “See that Lord Baldor is summoned to me at once,” he said. “I will tolerate these insolent crimes no longer. It may be that we must renegotiate the terms of our agreement.”
From the privileged seat reserved for the Lord of Pelargir, Erellont watched the continuing entertainments with only idle attention. A showing of exotic animals from the south had begun in the arena, three keepers parading their beasts for the crowd. There was a young mûmak, a small striped horse, and an outrageously large bird apparently more accustomed to sprinting than flying, bald as a buzzard on its head and neck, but with stunning black and white plumage on its body and superfluous wings. The crowd applauded the display, but Erellont’s mind was elsewhere.
His father had been obviously ill at ease since the previous night, but seemed unwilling either to admit it or to confide the reason. That was worrying. Erellont felt he was walking half-blind through his father’s machinations; he knew more than he wanted to know, and less than he ought. He found it difficult to look at Faramir, knowing the Prince of Ithilien would soon be dead unless Falathar’s plans miscarried. He cursed the circumstances which had brought them to this pass, but he was not prepared to stand before the King and accept the ruinous sentence his father and grandfather had earned for their house.
Falathar sat very near him, conspicuously present and engaged in the entertainment, obviously determined to appear unconcerned and innocuous. His duplicity soured everything he touched, and turned Erellont’s stomach more each day.
The keeper of the bird presented the Queen with an elegant fan fashioned from its long feathers, earning for himself one of the many white blossoms entwined in her hair as a token of her gratitude.
The law recognized him as the Lord of Pelargir, yet Erellont still felt inextricably entangled in his father’s conspiracies, subordinated to his demands and expectations. He was well aware that Falathar’s true intentions in relinquishing his office had very little to do with any infirmity, but rather an abhorrence of the hardship of war. Erellont had accepted the responsibilities of his rank and served with some distinction in the War of the Ring, but that would all be forgotten in the stench of his family’s corruption. By the time he had become aware of the depth of his father’s vices, similar offenses had already been perpetrated in his name. He had not had a stellar career as the Lord, to be sure, but he was not to blame for the sorry state of their affairs. Now he had been dragged into the muck before he had had a chance to object. Now it was too late.
The animals had gone now, and a giant from Dale presented himself. He proceeded to bend swords with nothing but his hands, albeit with a padded glove to save his fingers from the blades.
Sitting alone in an impotent froth of his own disgust and resentment, Erellont decided he could no longer endure his father’s presence at that moment. He rose abruptly and turned to leave.
“What are you doing?” Falathar hissed at him. “Are you trying to seed rumors?”
“I will go where I please,” Erellont asserted, his voice assuming an absolute tone he had never dared use against his father before. “Let those tongues wag that will, and pray they do not guess the truth.” He turned again and descended from their place amid the crowd without looking back.
He stalked across the grass toward his pavilion, glad to leave the noise and incessant mirth behind. He did not have the patience for it today. He wanted more sympathetic company.
Mereneth was waiting for him there, keeping decorously out of sight as a nobleman’s mistress should. Erellont allowed the tent flaps to fall closed and collapsed in a heap on the cushion beside her. She lay aside her sewing and ran her fingers through his hair, obviously concerned. “Why are you not enjoying the King’s festivities, my lord?” she asked. “Your absence will be remarked upon.”
“I do not care who remarks upon it,” Erellont countered. “I could not abide my father’s presence any longer, not even had they seven queens of Rhûn set to parade in naught but their jewels.” Naturally he could not confide to her the true reason for his frustration with his father, but he had reasons enough that she did not suspect anything more serious.
“You should not allow him to intimidate you, my lord,” Mereneth said, softly and yet very boldly. “He willingly gave his seat over to you long ago. He should allow you to occupy it in truth as well as in appearance.”
“I would that it were as simple as that.” Erellont almost smiled. Not very long ago it had seemed that simple. “I do not want to talk about my father. I want to be with you.”
Mereneth smiled coyly and took up her embroidery again. “I expect that is the reason your father desires to remove me from your household, my lord.”
It was true that Falathar did not approve of Mereneth. It was not because he was prudish, but because he was a brute. Erellont had found her on the streets of Pelargir, just another war orphan without money or means, reduced to begging and scavenging. Something about her had caught his eye at once, and rather than give her a coin he had set her on his horse and brought her back with him. Naturally his father assumed she was nothing but a passing amusement, and was confounded when instead their bond became one of genuine affection, something beyond his comprehension. He had several times attempted to remove her, but on this one point Erellont had consistently defied him. Mereneth relieved his loneliness, and for now he preferred her company above all others.
A distant roar of applause came to them on the breeze, and Erellont concluded that the sword-bender must have taken his leave. Doubtless some other freak was now preparing to exhibit himself.
“Your father treats you as a child because you allow it, my lord,” Mereneth insisted. “You must learn to defend yourself at least as ably as you do me.”
Erellont sighed. He knew she was right, but the situation was already so out of hand that it hardly seemed worth the effort to begin rowing against the current now.
A Rohirric strongman proudly entered the arena when the sword-bending giant had quit it, a train of men behind him dragging carts containing stones and irons of various sizes. He threw off his shirt, displaying his extraordinary musculature to the rowdy crowd of spectators.
The midday meal was served. Imrahil could see rations of bread and cheese being distributed throughout the common ranks, but the King and his companions were treated to morsels of venison seasoned with an almost obscene amount of black pepper and other expensive spices. Trade had been brisk as other nations rushed to exchange their goods for the spoils of Mordor’s fall.
Imrahil nearly choked on his wine when Ivriniel suddenly grabbed his shoulder and appeared at his elbow. He would have been cross with her had not her face been so grave. “Imrahil,” she said, “Beleg is gone.”
“Gone where?” Imrahil asked. The statement made no sense.
Ivriniel shook her head. “None can say.” She looked older, ashen and drawn with worry. “I have inquired everywhere. I lost him at the fire last night and he has not been seen since.”
Imrahil was immediately concerned. He wanted to believe it was nothing, but he recognized his sister’s panic, and he knew it was completely out of character for Beleg to disappear even for an hour without her knowledge. He did not like it, particularly now that there were nameless lawbreakers at large in the wood. He left his seat and approached the King as discreetly as he could.
“My lord,” he said, leaning close to Elessar to be heard over the noise of the strongman’s performance, “my sister’s husband, Beleg of Pelargir, has not been accounted for since last night, and may have met with some misfortune. He is a man of reliable character, and I believe the matter merits investigation.”
“So do I,” Elessar agreed, “especially after what you told me of the events of this morning.” He beckoned to his Guard once again, his brow furrowed with concern. Then he shook his head, disgusted by these malicious disruptions of his festival. “Take Lady Ivriniel and see that a description of her husband is given to the auxiliary guard, who will then search the surrounds for him,” he instructed.
Imrahil resumed his seat as Ivriniel left with the captain. Nerdanel shared his concern. “It is surely nothing,” he assured her, equally for his own benefit. “Perhaps he is yet sleeping off last night’s drink in the wood, and will wonder at all the fuss when he wakes.” It was not a very convincing theory.
Left with no more boulders to lift, the strongman pointed at Elessar and issued a theatrical challenge. Obviously prepared for this, a large Gondorian soldier appeared on the field to grapple with him. It was great sport, and it whipped the crowd into a frenzy once again, but the man of Rohan came away undefeated. Now he challenged the King of Dale to produce his own champion, and another prepared opponent came out to meet him. He fared no better despite a spirited struggle. Flushed with victory, the strongman pointed at the great Elvenking.
The flash of consternation on Elessar’s face told Imrahil that this was not part of the script. The man’s audacity earned a surprised but respectful nod from Thranduil, wild cheers from the Rohirrim, and vengefully amused heckling from the Dalers. Thranduil elected one from his personal guard, Lancaeron, to act as his champion.
The strongman seemed to come again to his senses as the flinty Elven soldier approached him, but it was far too late to recant. Even bereft of weapons, those entrusted with the king’s person were formidable individuals. The two seemed very mismatched as each took the measure of the other, the hulking Man and the slender Elf, but the outcome was far from certain.
“How do you wager now, Meriadoc?” Éomer asked, perhaps hoping to win his money back.
Merry hesitated. “I don’t like that hungry look on Thranduil,” he said. “It’s like a hawk watching a lame rabbit.”
“I cannot prove faithless to my own champion,” Éomer decided. “Have you so little confidence in your brother in arms?”
“I will take your wager, my lord,” Imrahil said. “A gold piece in favor of the Elf.”
Neither had yet engaged the other, and the crowd began to express impatience. Lancaeron’s manner seemed to soften for a moment, and he said something to his challenger which no one else could hear. Apparently reassured, the man smiled and resumed his aggressive posture. He lunged at the Elf, who did not evade the attack as expected, but instead met his opponent with all the force of a rutting stag. Surprised, the crowd loudly applauded this tack, which evened the odds somewhat and abbreviated what might have been a long and tedious dance. This would be a trial of strength rather than agility.
“He is a bold one,” Éomer said. “Fram easily outweighs him.”
“All the old tales agree that the Elves are capable of great feats of endurance,” Imrahil countered.
Lancaeron was clearly the more limber of the two, and not only because he was fresh. Fram fought with dogged determination, wearied by his performance but alert enough to bring his crushing strength to bear whenever possible. It seemed the Elf was at least a match for him in that regard, and neither clearly gained the upper hand. Elessar still seemed slightly ill at ease. Thranduil watched the contest with serene confidence. Imrahil and Éomer shot furtive glances at one another. Fram struggled to counter each of Lancaeron’s attempts to unbalance him, and it seemed his defense was weakening. They were locked in a titanic struggle of wills for a time, neither apparently able to overpower the other. Then Lancaeron very diplomatically disengaged and extended his hand, declaring a draw.
It was an honorable if not entirely satisfactory conclusion, but Elessar and Thranduil seemed to approve, and in that Imrahil recognized the wisdom of Thranduil’s choice. Judging by the scowl on his face, that beast Dorthaer would not have been so magnanimous had he been selected.
In any event, the contest was soon forgotten in the raucous excitement which heralded the second round of pilwë. The victorious Rangers of Ithilien returned to the field against the rather feral-looking Rangers of the North.
The entertainments continued late into the afternoon. The Rangers of the North managed to claim the ultimate victory after besting their fellows from Ithilien and defending their title against a team of the King’s Guard. The evening closed with a crowded banquet given by the King for all in attendance. The entire field smelled of roast boar, venison, and game birds.
Falathar tried to drown his anxieties in the excellent food. Erellont had not reappeared, but no one seemed to notice his absence or care. It hardly mattered now; everything else was progressing perfectly. After his brief rebellion, Radhruin had been hard at work.
There were many official comings and goings of guards and other officials from the King’s table during the meal, and there were noticeably fewer smiles than there had been previously. Falathar was aware that a search was quietly underway throughout the wood for Lady Ivriniel’s husband, but he doubted the body would be found anywhere in the immediate vicinity. His corsair knew his business too well for that. By now, the tale of the violation of the Elvenking’s horse had circulated throughout the assembly, provoking a variety of reactions. Opponents of the Elvish presence were emboldened by the act, while the Elves themselves had obviously run short of their obligatory patience and were beginning to take offense. The stage was set.
By the time darkness fell and the torches were lit, the wine and ale had begun to influence the behavior of the crowd, and a brawl broke out at one of the lower tables. It was largely ignored until a half-eaten apple was hurled directly at Thranduil. The Elvenking ducked out of the way, too quick to be taken at unawares, and he magnanimously motioned Elessar down before the King could take official umbrage at the incident, but his expression darkened. The fighting was quelled by the friends of those involved who were still in possession of their better judgement, but it revealed the simmering tensions everyone could feel.
Not half an hour later, the music was interrupted by a loud crash as several serving platters were swept clear of another table. Four furious Elves stood facing an inebriated gang of six Men opposite the table from them. “You will will not defame Aran Oropherion in our hearing!” the first among them demanded, fearlessly inflamed with wine. “You are not worthy to pronounce his name! Recant, or we shall have our satisfaction in other ways.”
The Man, who had obviously said something opprobrious about Thranduil, was unrepentant. “You do not command me, you Elvish bastard!” he sneered. “You and your king can rot!”
The Elf, as good as his word, brutally stabbed the Man’s hand into the table with an iron meat fork.
There were screams and a flood of cursing, and more vicious fighting commenced. This time Thranduil was on his feet, barking orders, and Elessar deployed his Guard. Both Elvish and Gondorian soldiers separated the combatants and arrested the instigators. The banquet was as good as ended, and the crowd rapidly dwindled as people slipped away into the night rather than be associated with the violence.
Falathar smiled as he, too, discreetly took his leave. It was time.
Rather than leave the matter until morning, Elessar elected to judge the case immediately. The Men involved were expelled from the festivities and from Ithilien, the wounded among them taken to have their hurts dressed. He left the Elves to the judgement of their own masters, but he attended closely.
Thranduil scrutinized the four who had instigated the brawl, in particular the one who had wielded the fork. “It is no small thing to use violence against the citizens of a realm in which you are merely a guest,” he said icily.
Now that their blood had cooled, the Elves seemed chastened. “We were sorely provoked, Aran nîn,” one explained. “He insulted you without cause, and in the grossest manner.”
“I have been insulted many times in my life, and never has it had any detrimental effect on my health,” Thranduil insisted dryly. “Your loyalty is commendable, but unfortunately it is not excuse enough to maim Elessar’s men.”
“I do repent of that,” the guilty one admitted. “In my anger I forgot the frailty of mortal kind. It was not my intention to damage him irreparably.”
“I trust not,” Thranduil agreed. “I will not rule in this matter. You have sworn yourselves to Legolas, and he will determine a suitable judgement.”
Legolas assigned them extra duties and declared their wages forfeit to the injured man and his family until such time as he had recovered the use of his hand. Elessar was satisfied, and the incident was put to rest, at least officially. Imrahil feared there would yet be unpleasant repercussions before they had heard the last of it.
“I still blame Baldor and his selfish rabble-rousing,” Nerdanel hissed as they retired to their pavilion. “Now the coward has disappeared rather than endure the chaos he has incited.”
“Lord Baldor may be many things,” Imrahil said gravely, “but I do not judge him a coward. He may be brash and irresponsible, but fearlessly so.”
“All the same, he should be made to answer for all this disruption. Where has he gone?”
Imrahil frowned. “I am certain the King is now asking the same question.”
A child shrieked nearby, shattering the uncomfortable quiet of the valley. Imrahil came running, as did Éomer, Erchirion, Faramir, and at least twenty Elves and guardsmen. Princess Elfírien was sobbing in her mother’s arms. She was unhurt, but Aeglos the fox was dead in a pool of vomit.
The next morning, it was plain that something had finally and indisputably changed. The sun shone as brightly as ever, but there was an oppressive mood of indignation on the air. The Elves were now uniformly grim and taciturn, all of them rebelling as one against their social obligation to endure the abuse of shortsighted Men like Baldor of Lamedon.
Imrahil emerged from his pavilion cautiously. He had no reason to personally fear the wrath of Thranduil’s people, but the discontent was palpable. It was dangerous. There was an uneasy quiet over the field of Cormallen, nothing like the tranquility of the previous morning. No one seemed to know what to do or say. Everyone was talking, but no one dared to raise their voices or disturb the uncanny hush.
The ceremonies which had been planned for later that morning were deferred until the King had taken counsel on the matter. Imrahil could see him now, a brooding figure of black and white and silver, stalking across the field in a foul temper. He went to join him.
Elessar seemed pleased to see him, or at least as pleased as he could be under the circumstances. “I have spoken to Thranduil,” he said. “His patience is at an end, although he will take no action yet out of deference to me. He has asked that Lord Baldor be taken into my custody by the end of this day and that an inquiry be made into his activities, or he will withdraw to Emyn Arnen. He suspects, as do I, that the majority of the Elves will follow him without having to be compelled.”
Imrahil frowned. “That would be a grievous blow.”
“It would be insufferable!” Elessar growled. “I cannot blame him for securing his own safety and that of his people, but I would not have the safe-conduct of the King of Gondor made worthless!”
“Many are wondering now if it might not be best to forego the remainder of the festival.”
“That would be worse,” Elessar insisted. “If I cannot enforce my will in such a trifling matter as this, then my reign is impotent. I have already agreed to Thranduil’s terms, but the Lord of Lamedon is proving elusive.”
“I have not laid eyes upon him since the day we arrived in Minas Tir—, excuse me, Minas Anor,” Imrahil said, turning where he stood to survey the encampment behind them. “Did he come to Ithilien at all?”
“I have had mixed reports of him, even rumors that he is here in disguise.” Elessar glowered back at the pavilions as well, his keen eyes even now searching through the figures moving about in the morning light. “If he is here I will have him, even if I must comb the forest until sundown. Perhaps the Queen was correct in her suspicion that I have been too lenient.”
“A just king could have done little else,” Imrahil assured him.
Faramir came out of the camp to meet them on the hillock where they stood. The stern set of his features did not bode well.
“What report have you for me, Prince of Ithilien?” Elessar demanded.
“I regret that it is not better news, my lords,” Faramir frowned, coming to stand with them. “There has yet been no report of Lord Baldor, nor of Beleg, despite the night search. The mood among our guests could not be much worse; the Elves are ready to come to blows, and there are not a few of our people who are willing to oblige them. As much as I am loath to admit it, I believe it would be folly to continue here.”
“No.” The King was unmoved, though it seemed his agitation was building. “Thranduil can hold his own in check, and any Man of Gondor found to be goading them is to be immediately seized.”
Faramir looked exasperated. “Legolas is too incensed even to speak,” he said, “and I hazard to say that he is the most even-tempered among them. That is how far gone our situation is, my King. To stay would be to lay tinder near the fire.”
Elessar pressed his lips into a firm line. “I know your counsel is sound, Faramir,” he said, “but I will not disband this gathering yet, at least not until we have made an effort to meet Thranduil’s conditions. Continue the search and detain anyone behaving in hostile manner.”
A page boy came running toward them over the grass. Winded by the urgency of his errand, he bowed and gave a folded paper to Faramir. “The Elvenking would see you at once at his pavilion, my lord,” he said.
All three of them scowled. “What can he want with you?” Elessar asked aloud. “I just spoke with him.”
Faramir shrugged and turned back. “It would be best to find out,” he said, “especially in this climate.”
Elessar and Imrahil watched him go, each brooding over his own thoughts for a moment. A contingent of Rohirrim emerged from the wood, exercising their horses around the perimeter.
“I am concerned about Beleg of Pelargir,” Elessar said slowly, turning the conversation. “I cannot help but feel that his disappearance is of greater consequence and worth more consideration than this tiresome devilry.”
“I agree, my lord,” Imrahil said. “There seems to be greater danger afoot than we suspected, and that alone may be reason enough to act on Faramir’s counsel and remove to Minas Anor.”
“Only when all other recourse is exhausted,” the King insisted adamantly. “We have a small army gathered here in good men and loyal allies. Surely we can apprehend a few cowards skulking in the wood.”
A tremendous force threw them both to the ground with a wave of blistering heat and a sound like a thunderclap. Momentarily stunned, Imrahil forced himself upright. The thundering continued in a storm of crackling explosions, engulfing Thranduil’s pavilion in a roaring inferno of red fire and screaming green embers. Angry plumes of black and white smoke billowed into the sky, intermingling to form a dirty grey soot which began pelting down on the screaming crowds stampeding from the scene.
Elessar regained his feet, startling Imrahil out of his horrified stupor. They rushed toward the devastation as quickly as they could manage along with a small host of frantic Elves and the bravest Men present, cinders falling all around them.
The explosions had ceased as they drew near, but the ruins of the pavilion were well alight. Disembodied limbs lay strewn amidst the burning debris. As if by some miracle of survival, Thranduil had been blown clear of the flames and was just pulling himself up as they approached. He was scorched and lacerated with blood seeping from his ears, but he was very much alive.
“My lord!” Imrahil called to him over the roar of the flames and the ringing in his own ears. He ran to his side and offered his hand, helping him to his feet. “Are you badly hurt, my lord? Anírach i dulu nín? Aphado nin! We must move away from here!”
Thranduil seemed thoroughly shocked for a moment, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Imrahil had some doubt that he could hear him at all. But, deafened or not, the Elvenking’s vacant eyes soon became hard and wild, and he threw aside Imrahil’s hand. “No, no, no!” he shouted, at once panicked and enraged. “Not here, not now! What has he done?” He choked, coughed, and spat blood onto the ground.
“My lord, go!” Imrahil commanded, although he did not expect the king to obey him. “You are injured and need attention!”
What remained of Thranduil’s guard appeared looking no better than he did, but they took him in hand as best they could, mindful of their first duty. Éomer had set his Rohirrim to the forward-thinking task of cutting down the pavilions adjacent to the blaze lest they be lost as well. Other wounded were gathered and shepherded away from the area. Legolas emerged with some difficulty, burnt and battered and calling urgently for assistance, dragging Faramir from the flames by the collar.
Imrahil ripped off his cloak. He and Elessar lay Faramir across it and bore him away by the corners. Physicians, their apprentices, and anyone with even a passing interest in medicine were gathering at a field hospital which had spontaneously formed safely beyond the fire’s reach. They brought Faramir there, and a physician went to work on him at once.
“Aragorn!” Gimli’s anxious voice rose above the confusion as he and a few other Dwarves pushed their way through the crowd. “Does he live? Ah, then there is not a moment to waste! Frár has seen and treated these sorts of injuries many times and will know what to do.”
Nerdanel came running, closely followed by Amrothos and Erchirion, and threw her arms around Imrahil. She choked back a sob at the sight of the victims. “Oh, Faramir!” she cried. “I pray they have not killed him!”
Rather than move them again, Queen Arwen ordered a tent erected over the victims where they lay to shield them from the sun and falling ash. The dead were gathered elsewhere.
Much of the rest of the day passed in a haze of urgent activity and false calm. Everyone was shocked by the brutal crime, but there was too much to be done to dwell on it yet. Since they lacked any effective means to extinguish the fire, it was left to burn itself out. The dead were shrouded in bedding or whatever else was close at hand, and prepared for a hasty burial. The King’s Guard and their auxiliaries were dispatched to keep order in the festival grounds and to alert the others on duty in Minas Anor. The search for Baldor of Lamedon was no longer a quiet affair, and a royal warrant was issued for his capture. Witnesses were sought, but no one seemed to have seen anyone placing the stolen fireworks in the Elvenking’s pavilion or noticed anything out of the ordinary.
By late afternoon, there was nothing left to do but to let the healers and the soldiers do their work. King Elessar resumed his principal duties and relieved Imrahil to find some solace with his family. Too restless to stand down yet, Imrahil returned to visit the wounded once again. The air in the tent was thick with the smell of blood and crushed athelas.
Faramir was conscious, but struggling to breathe and obviously suffering terribly. Éowyn and Nerdanel attended him closely. They both looked up as Imrahil approached.
Despite his condition, Faramir managed a cheerless smile. “Fate, it seems, is determined to see me burned alive,” he whispered. The effort set him coughing and spitting up blood.
“Hush,” Éowyn commanded, wiping up the mess and wetting her husband’s lips with a cloth. “He is supposed to cough,” she explained to Imrahil. “Frár says it will eventually clear the damage to his lungs.
Imrahil nodded. “Listen to your lady wife,” he agreed. The mere fact that Faramir still had spirit enough to make light of the situation was reason to hope, but he was fortunate to be alive at all, and certainly not out of danger. His leg was splinted from the hip to the ankle, and his hands were heavily bandaged. It would be a struggle to keep morbidity from setting in. “We have sent for boats from Osgiliath,” Imrahil told them, “and we will be withdrawing to Minas Anor in the morning. Rest as well as you can until then.”
“Who has done this, Imrahil?” Éowyn demanded then, her voice venomous. “Who would dare? Was it the Lord of Lamedon?”
“I can assure you the Lord of Lamedon will not escape whatever punishment is due him,” Imrahil said icily. “Your husband needs your concern now more than he.”
“Find him,” she said. “Find him and burn him!”
“He will not escape the King, my lady,” Imrahil insisted sharply. “And if his intent was indeed to destroy the Elvenking, I suspect he will heartily regret missing his mark.” He sighed, and softened his tone. “I swear to you both, justice will be done, little comfort though it may be now.”
Imrahil and Nerdanel shared a tense glance. She held her peace, but she clearly shared Éowyn’s feelings on the matter.
Continuing his rounds, Imrahil left the healer’s tent, walked across the open expanse of the field and approached with some trepidation the Elvenking’s new quarters. The spare pavilion had been pitched a haughty distance from the rest, and was guarded by at least sixty Elven soldiers. Recalling that Thranduil had originally ridden from the north with only six, Imrahil recognized just how completely his confidence in Elessar’s protection had been destroyed, and justifiably so.
The guards eyed Imrahil warily, and seemed reluctant to allow him to pass. “What business brings you here?” the senior commander demanded gruffly. He was not Dorthaer, which could only mean Thranduil’s chief guardsman was either dead or incapacitated.
“I am Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth and Marchwarden of King Elessar,” Imrahil said solemnly. “I have come to inquire after our friend, the King of Eryn Lasgalen.”
“The King is not disposed to receive anyone, whatever his rank,” the commander informed him bitterly.
Under the circumstances, Imrahil forgave his temerity. He knew how ardently the Lasgalenath revered Thranduil, and any attempt on his life would have been insufferable without it being so callous and ignoble as this.
“Captain Tavoron.” Another Elf emerged from the pavilion, one who seemed vaguely familiar to Imrahil. After a moment, he recognized him to be Erelas, one of the party that had visited Dol Amroth and was usually attached to Legolas. “Prince Imrahil is deemed an Elf-friend and is not to be refused.”
Tavoron glowered at him, but did not object. Erelas, like his brother, Gwaelas, had that singular air of one who was accustomed to speaking for kings and princes. The guards briefly stood aside to allow Imrahil to pass, then immediately closed ranks behind him. Erelas admitted him into the pavilion.
Legolas was seated within the first partition. The impression would have been that he was holding court in his father’s absence, or that he had set himself as a final guard between their wounded and the world outside, but the grim dignity of his position was lessened somewhat by the fact that he was finally having his arm set and bound. Imrahil was mildly surprised to find Gimli there, but upon reflection realized he probably should not have been.
“He would not let anyone attend him until now,” Gimli complained gruffly, observing the proceedings from a cushion in the corner. “Far too noble for his own good.”
“I am in no danger of dying, my friend,” Legolas insisted, his voice was roughened by the wet cough that seemed to afflict all those who had been nearest the blast. “Many others could not say the same.”
“How many?” Imrahil asked grimly.
Legolas’ features hardened as the physician deftly wrenched his upper arm back into alignment and set about applying a splint. “Ten dead,” he said at last. “Four who will be fortunate to last the night.”
“Your father, the king, is not among those, I trust.”
“Indeed not.” The wry tilt of his brow seemed to imply quite the opposite. “His injuries are not insignificant, but he has survived much worse. He is too angry to be debilitated for long.”
Something in the pit of Imrahil’s stomach turned cold. “May I speak to him?” he asked.
Legolas shook his head. “He is sleeping now to better heal himself, but I tell you he will wake in a matter of hours, and he will be terribly refreshed. You may let it be known that Baldor Angborion would do well to cast himself upon Elessar’s mercy before Thranduil comes for him.”
“We cannot be certain yet of Lord Baldor’s guilt,” Imrahil ventured to remind him.
“Perhaps not,” Legolas said sternly, clenching his jaw as his wrist was stabilized. “But someone has violated a royal safe-conduct, spilt immortal blood in a time of peace, and by the most craven means attempted to murder our king. In Eryn Lasgalen his life would be forfeit, and we will have him one way or another, be he titled or not.”
Several apologies, objections, and cautions rose in Imrahil’s mind, but before he could decide which was most appropriate he noticed Legolas scowling and turning his head from side to side. “My lord, are you still unwell?” he asked.
“My hearing remains somewhat impaired,” Legolas explained, uncharacteristically cross and impatient.
“Happens after a blast,” Gimli said. “Knowing him, it will set itself right sooner than I expect, but considering how much he usually hears, it must feel like walking blind.”
“What news of Faramir?” Legolas asked suddenly, changing the subject. “I did attempt to shield him from the fire, but he seemed already more seriously injured than I.”
“Faramir still lives,” Imrahil told him, “and that I believe we owe to your quick action and the expertise of Master Gimli’s friends. He is well attended by his wife and mine, but his condition is indeed serious and may yet worsen.”
“It all seems so crude and thoughtless,” Legolas complained as his arm was secured against his chest. “I cannot understand what would make any man so desperate to assault my father that he would risk endangering so many. Surely it was not worth the Steward’s life!”
“Faramir was present quite by accident,” Imrahil assured him. “He and I were with King Elessar only moments beforehand, and it was only to answer your father’s summons that he left us.”
Legolas’ eyes narrowed sharply. “You say my father summoned Faramir? When? I was with him when he spoke to Elessar and until a moment before the blast. He summoned no one.”
The noise of another confrontation began outside. Captain Tavoron was a very jealous gatekeeper. Erelas quietly excused himself to investigate and returned in a matter of moments. “You are summoned before King Elessar, Prince Imrahil,” he said. “The messenger believes it to be an urgent request.”
“Indeed it must be,” Imrahil agreed. “He only just dismissed me.”
Imrahil abruptly took his leave and accompanied the messenger to the King’s quarters. The blast site was still smoldering as they passed it, an ugly scar in the midst of the bright festival grounds. It did anger him, now that he had time enough to indulge his own emotions. Legolas was quite correct; the brutal indifference of the crime merited death by Gondor’s law as well as Eryn Lasgalen’s. He did not expect Elessar to refuse Thranduil satisfaction when the guilty man was apprehended.
The King’s Guard did not bother to announce him as he arrived at Elessar’s pavilion, allowing him to pass unhindered into the soft light filtering through the white and silver-spangled roof. The King was waiting for him with a collection of Rangers, both northern and southern. “Imrahil,” he said, beckoning him to join them, “I fear it is more ill news.”
“A site of significant bloodshed has been identified by hounds not far from the bonfire,” a Ranger explained. “There is also evidence to suggest a fight took place.”
“Can it not simply be the blood of carrion?” Imrahil asked. “Perhaps the work of a beast?”
The Ranger looked grim. “The beast who spilled this blood did its utmost to stem the flow before dragging its victim several paces away and putting it onto the back of a steel-shod horse,” he said.
The implications were obvious, and the evidence seemed beyond question when so many experienced Rangers concurred. Imrahil felt sick again. “Has Lady Ivriniel been informed?” he asked.
“It may not be Beleg’s blood,” Elessar insisted. “I would not grieve her until I can confirm the worst. I have not the means of doing so at present, but no others have been reported to be missing, at least not before this morning.”
“We tracked the horse as far as the east river,” the Ranger continued, “but there it entered the water and the trail was lost.”
“Increase your presence along all likely avenues of travel,” Elessar commanded them. “I and a great deal of the army will be otherwise occupied by a manhunt of our own. Report to me as you see fit.”
The Rangers bowed and went to do as they were commanded, leaving Elessar and Imrahil strangely alone. The majority of the King’s attendants had been dispatched upon other errands as they struggled to contain the disaster.
“Walk with me, Imrahil,” Elessar said. “I crave your counsel.”
“I am at your service, my lord.”
The King’s Guard hovered as close as propriety would allow, lest any grave misfortune befall more than one crowned head today.
“It seems Faramir’s warnings were nigh prophetic, as usual,” Elessar said bitterly. “It was folly not to suspend the festival after the incidents of yesterday.”
“Nothing happened yesterday that could not be attributed to drunken swaggering and loose lips,” Imrahil assured him. “This is different. There is malice and calculation behind this act, and I doubt it was the work of a drunken lout.”
“Perhaps,” Elessar admitted. “Do you suspect the Lord of Lamedon?”
Imrahil hesitated. “He is the obvious suspect,” he said. “Might he not be too obvious?”
“Guilty or not, I will have him seized,” Elessar said. “Even if he be innocent of this, he may yet have some insight to offer.” His expression softened. “I have yet to hear you mention your sister’s son.”
“I would rather not speak of it, my lord,” Imrahil said. He suspected that if he did, he may be unable to contain himself. “As a marchwarden of Gondor, I cannot allow myself to be compromised by personal affection. Until Faramir has recovered, I must prove equal to his duties as well as my own.”
“Indeed,” Elessar agreed, “and I suspect I shall have great need of you. Rest now, if you can; there is little to be done except to maintain order until we remove the wounded tomorrow. I deem it best to leave Éomer and the Rohirrim to garrison this place until we know better what has happened. Bard and Thorin have offered their parties to reinforce them. The perpetrator has seriously offended the Dwarves by using their fireworks in his crime, and they say they have destroyed what few remained.” The King paused and sighed heavily, seeming to recognize that he was talking merely to fill the silence. “Go and sleep, Imrahil,” he said at last, waving him away. “We may soon be glad of the opportunity.”
“Yes, my lord.”
As he walked back through the growing dusk, Imrahil was dimly aware of being very tired despite his restless mind. This day had certainly not made him any younger. He did not want sleep; he wanted to act. The anger and resentment he had subordinated to his primary duties was burning inside him. His only consolation was the knowledge that soldiers, Rangers, and Elves alike were already scouring the surrounding country and did not need his assistance to do their duty. It was his duty to be present when Elessar required him, and that meant he should sleep while he may.
He stopped to see Faramir once more before retiring to his pavilion. His nephew was resting as well as he might while Éowyn carefully observed his breathing and Nerdanel steeped more athelas. The steam made the atmosphere inside the tent rather heavy, but was no doubt soothing to bruised lungs. Faramir’s man, Beregond, was there keeping vigil, acting as a personal guard. Outside, an informal choir of Elves had seated themselves in the shadows beyond the torchlight, singing for the benefit of their friend, the Prince of Ithilien, and those other Men of Gondor who had been wounded alongside their king and kinsmen. Their strong but gentle voices seemed to have laid a preternatural calm over the place, although those who understood their lament recognized that it held abundant promise of vengeance.
Imrahil said nothing, not wishing to disturb the tenuous peace. He merely put his arm around his lady and kissed her forehead. Nerdanel slumped against him for a moment, drawing what strength she could from his presence. He could not stay, and she understood why. They all knew their duty.
As Imrahil returned into the darkness, suddenly wearier than he had felt for years, he saw a child approaching. Assuming it to be Alphros come to see his uncle, Imrahil knelt to intercept and dissuade his grandson from interrupting Faramir’s rest. At the same moment, the torchlight revealed someone very different. Imrahil realized he must be very weary indeed. “Good evening, Master Peregrin,” he said.
Pippin was momentarily startled, his thoughts obviously elsewhere. “Oh, Prince Imrahil! Please forgive me, I was . . .”
Imrahil raised a hand to forestall any explanation. “We each have our own griefs today,” he said.
“I have come to relieve Beregond’s watch,” Pippin explained. “He must be exhausted by now. Merry and I may be small, but we have our duties as well, and we want to be of some service.”
“Surely the capabilities of Hobbits can no longer be doubted,” Imrahil observed with a wan smile. “By all means, attend your duties, Peregrin. Guard him well; it would be hard on me if anything worse were to befall him.”
“I will, my lord.”
Ciryon was dead asleep when Imrahil finally reached his pavilion. Rather than wake him, Imrahil preferred to attend his needs himself. He removed his circlet, cape, and sword, and sat to remove his boots. One of their great black dogs approached and lay her head on his knee, gently wagging her tail, attentive to his silent distress.
The raw emotion Imrahil had been suppressing all day rose suddenly to drown him. He bit his tongue rather than make a sound, but the tears would not be contained. He remembered Faramir in his youth, those brief years he and Boromir had lived at Dol Amroth, their father too absorbed in his own grief to grieve with them. Imrahil loved that boy, Finduilas’ last child, and he was not prepared to lose him.
He calmed himself with a great effort, resuming a flinty expression. He would let his anger make him whole again, even as Thranduil did. He took up his jeweled sword, drew the blade and thrust it into the earth.
“If the Valar are yet attentive to what remains of the Men of Númenor,” he said, “let them hear now. I swear upon my honor that this treachery will not go unpunished, nor this injury unrequited, not while I yet live.”
“My lord. My lord, forgive me.”
Imrahil sat bolt upright, waking suddenly from a dream he could not remember. Ciryon had been shaking him gently, and now retreated a pace. It seemed only a moment ago that he had closed his eyes, and yet the brilliant colors of dawn were glowing against the tent cloth. “What is it?” he demanded. “Has King Elessar summoned me?”
“King Thranduil has requested your presence, my lord,” Ciryon clarified.
He was awake. That news alone was enough to shock the sleep from Imrahil’s mind. He leapt out of bed and quickly dressed in the clothes Ciryon provided, a thousand thoughts competing for his attention. “What have we heard of Faramir?” he asked first of all.
“Prince Faramir has survived the night,” Ciryon reported, helping him with the finer details. “He is not much improved, but he does not seem to have weakened.”
“That is perhaps the best we could hope for under the circumstances,” Imrahil said, securing his belt and stamping into his boots. “Have any arrests been made?”
“Several, but no one seems to know any more about the plot.”
“Somewhere there is someone who knows it all,” Imrahil said darkly. “Secrets so dreadful as this cannot be hidden for long.”
The moment he was fit to be seen, Imrahil stepped outside and steadied himself with a deep breath. One of Thranduil’s grim guardsmen waited at a decorous distance. The Elf offered the Prince of Dol Amroth a slight bow before turning on his heel and leading the way toward the river. Imrahil followed at once.
A small fleet of swift Elvish boats had appeared overnight and lay moored on the banks of the Anduin, each bearing a rower and shrouded corpse. The Elvenking stood in the midst of the somber preparations, motionless and silent. The guardsman stopped several paces distant, and indicated with the slightest nod that Imrahil should proceed. He would have felt he was intruding had he not been summoned.
“I understand you came to inquire after me yesterday,” Thranduil said in a deliberate and apparently dispassionate tone. “I regret that I was not fit to receive you.”
“It is of no matter, my lord,” Imrahil said reflexively, though he took care to enunciate clearly, remembering that the Elvenking’s hearing may yet be compromised. He was immediately struck by how whole Thranduil looked otherwise. The bloody lacerations of yesterday had already faded to pale pink scars, as if he had closed them by the sheer force of his will. Also, as Legolas had predicted, Imrahil could feel an unpleasant aura radiating from him, a potent boil of wrath and sorrow and rancor, all veiled by a fragile calm. It was so distinct, Imrahil almost perceived it as heat. It was extremely discomfiting. “Please allow me to express how profoundly we regret the loss of your people.”
Thranduil’s expression darkened, and as he turned toward him, Imrahil could see that some of that uncontainable passion had expressed itself in tears. “Lancaeron,” he said bitterly, gesturing toward the body in the boat at his feet, “had been with me since before the foundation of Gondor. He survived the siege of Mordor, all the wiles of the Necromancer and the War of the Ring, only to be murdered in Ithilien. Ponder that for a moment, and then I believe you may be one of the few Men in this country who may be capable of understanding my loss.”
His last words were bitten off sharply, and Imrahil could see his rage rising, but Thranduil deliberately suppressed it again with a shuddering breath. “I am not accustomed to being powerless in these matters,” he said, obviously keenly frustrated, “but a king’s sovereignty in his own realm must not be made a mockery, especially not by other kings. I am trusting a great deal to Elessar, and to you.”
“You will have your satisfaction, my lord,” Imrahil promised. “I will do all that lies within my power to see justice done, not only because I desire satisfaction of my own.”
Thranduil nodded gravely. “Legolas told me that Faramir was injured with us. I am sincerely relieved that he has not been killed. I am certain the healers of Gondor know their business, but consider any of mine to be at your disposal should there be a need.”
“Thank you, but I am assured that he is receiving the best of care without depriving your own wounded.”
Thranduil nodded again, and was silent for a while. “As regards the Prince of Ithilien,” he finally said, “I have also been told that he came to harm because he believed I had summoned him. Might there have been some misunderstanding?”
“None whatsoever,” Imrahil told him. “I was present when the message was delivered. The boy said the Elvenking desired Faramir’s presence immediately.”
“This disturbs me,” Thranduil said, “intriguing though it is. Find that boy, if you can. Whoever employed such a clumsy ruse obviously did not intend that I should live to contradict him.”
The boats from Osgiliath arrived later that morning, a mismatched collection of many shapes and sizes, some bearing the royal crest and others that had been temporarily pressed into service. They were enough to bear away the most seriously injured and all those who would travel with them. The majority would be taken to Minas Anor with the King, but the wounded Elves were to travel on to Emyn Arnen with Legolas where it was expected that they would be safer. Thranduil had determined to return to Minas Anor at Elessar’s behest in order to keep abreast of the search for the Lord of Lamedon and the subsequent resolution of the matter. It was very gracious of him to accept the invitation, and did much to heal the breach of trust between them which the disaster of the previous day had created. Imrahil knew Thranduil would have no peace if he did not observe the proceedings in the capital, but his going did seem to entail some personal risk, and the doubling of his guard was not questioned. Imrahil was gratified to see that Dorthaer was not in fact dead, and that he had clawed his way back to health in time to resume his duties; Gwaelas, however, had been so severely wounded that he had yet to awaken, a fact which did much to explain Thranduil’s restless anxiety.
In the back of it all, Beleg’s disappearance remained unresolved. Ivriniel was sick with worry, and would not be persuaded to return to the city with them. Failing to convince her, Imrahil charged Amrothos to remain at Cormallen and attend her. The knowledge of what the Rangers had found in the forest burned in his mind like a toxic secret, but he would not destroy her hope without absolute certainty. He had not even told Nerdanel.
As they mounted their horses to follow the boats along the river, Imrahil wondered just how many such secrets might reveal themselves in the upcoming days. He felt certain of nothing except that they would be ugly and unsettling.
Falathar urged his horse through the wood, doing his utmost to conceal his seething impatience. “You, men, fan out to the north,” he instructed the four soldiers under his command. “Cast a wide net. If one of us stirs the villain, we will soon catch him.”
The soldiers did as he commanded, spreading through the trees and undergrowth. Falathar gradually increased the distance between himself and the nearest of them. If his true errand was successful, he certainly had no desire to be observed.
He had no way of summoning Radhruin now, and absolutely no knowledge of his whereabouts. It was enormously frustrating for him, but doubtlessly ideal for the corsair. All he could do was make himself visible and hope the man would reveal himself.
After several hours of combing the forest, Falathar began to despair, but suddenly a well-aimed pebble struck him across the breastplate. He drew up his horse and spied Radhruin in the mottled shadows beneath a spruce, caked in mud and leaves.
“What have you been playing at?” Falathar hissed. “Everything has gone wrong. You have ruined us all!”
“I have risked enough already for his folly of yours,” Radhruin retorted. “Clearly, Faramir is fated to live in spite of both of us. The guard around him is impenetrable. Take what remains of your silver,” he said, tossing the leather purse onto Falathar’s saddle. “My only concern now is to escape this country and leave you to consider doing the same.”
“Wait!” Falathar insisted as the corsair turned to disappear into the trees. “Something may yet be done to right all this.”
Radhruin paused, obviously anxious to be gone. “Nothing can be done to right this madness,” he said, “not if you had an army at your command. Your gamble has failed, Falathar. There is nothing left for you in Gondor but a grave.”
King Elessar’s return to Minas Anor could not have been more different from his recent departure. There were no flowers, no music, and no laughter. The citizens who had remained turned out to greet him, but none dared to speak. The King’s mood was obviously foul, and there was no need to wonder why. The celebratory banners still hung incongruously from the walls, and there seemed to be some disagreement about whether it would be worse to leave them or take them down.
Thranduil was in no humor to give consequence to anyone, and his surly expression betrayed it. The narrow glances the Elvenking received from the people told Imrahil that his unnaturally swift recovery had only unnerved them further. He seemed to neither notice nor care.
While the wounded were settled into the Houses of Healing, the King and the rest of the royal party returned immediately to the Citadel to address the business at hand. The great hall was strangely empty, and Elessar was met by the Captain of the Citadel Guard.
“My King,” he said, bowing deeply, “Lord Baldor has been apprehended fleeing into Lamedon. We have him under guard in the Steward’s House.”
“Well done,” Elessar commended him. “Now perhaps we may have the truth of this. Bring him before us at once.”
The captain left to fetch the prisoner. The King scowled for a moment, and then turned to climb the stairs to his throne. “Imrahil,” he said, indicating the Steward’s chair. “Thranduil. We all shall hear his testimony.”
The Lord of Lamedon was not bound when he was brought to face his judges, but the tight formation of soldiers around him left no doubt that he was not present of his own volition. Imrahil felt the gall rise in his throat at the sight of him. The disruption this man had begun had escalated out of all proportion, and for that, at least, he must bear the blame.
“Lord Baldor,” Elessar addressed him severely, “you were arrested returning to Lamedon in defiance of my summons. Why did you feel compelled to flee the King’s justice?”
“I was not aware that I required the King’s permission to return to my own country,” Baldor protested, still truculent despite his obvious anxiety. “And, as I suspected, the King’s justice in this affair seems decidedly unjust. I am innocent of the charges made against me.”
“Do you deny that you willfully spread discord throughout this realm?” Imrahil demanded, perhaps a bit out of turn.
“For that I need no defense, because I have broken no law.” There was more confidence in Baldor’s voice than there was on his face. His eyes were restless and seemed continuously drawn to Thranduil, though the glowering Elvenking made no move to speak. “My duty and first loyalty is to Gondor, the land of my fathers.”
“Do not offend me with protestations of your loyalty,” Elessar snapped. “Your reckless posturing has brought us to this. Thirteen are dead! My Steward has been gravely wounded! This, Baldor Angborion, is treason, and you have been implicated. Can you defend yourself?”
Baldor immediately paled. “My king!” he stammered. “You know me! I have only ever lived to serve Gondor! I have done nothing in secret, and would never willfully endanger my countrymen. I had no foreknowledge of this plot, nor was I present on the field that day. You know my reputation. You cannot believe me to be a murderer!”
Elessar said nothing, and the silence was painful.
“I do not know you,” Thranduil said icily, “nor am I obliged to believe anything of you. I only know what I have seen of your conduct, that you are a fearmonger and a teller of vicious tales. Even so, Baldor of Lamedon, you will find that not all unflattering legends about me are untrue. If you have visited this atrocity upon me and my people, your blood will be required of you.”
The raw force of the Elvenking’s anger could almost have darkened the room. Transfixed for a moment, Baldor tore his eyes away and looked to Elessar, perhaps expecting him to reprimand the foreign king for his audacity, but still Elessar was silent.
“My King!” he pleaded again. “I am innocent!”
“Look at me!” Thranduil commanded. “Look at me, and tell me!”
“That man is innocent,” Thranduil said at last, when the prisoner had been removed, “though I am loathe to admit it.”
“I agree.” Elessar had come down from his throne, looking tired and dispirited now that his indignation was momentarily spent. “He comes from a proud family, and if this had been his doing, he would have owned it.”
“Are we to continue the search at Cormallen?” Imrahil asked.
“We must continue to search everywhere we can,” Elessar said, “although our forces are sadly thinned by the effort. Someone must have seen something. Set a guard on every bridge and road from Cair Andros to the Poros crossing. I will have a reward offered to anyone who will betray the culprit to us, and send word of it to our friends, Éomer, Thorin, and Bard.”
Thranduil retired with his guard to the quarters prepared for him in the King’s House in search of some solitude. Imrahil stayed on with Elessar as Steward to address the remaining business of the day. There was little enough of that, as the customary horde of petitioners seemed wise enough to leave the King largely unmolested during this difficult time. When their duties were concluded, Elessar retired as well, and Imrahil went in search of his family.
He found his sons in the training room attached to the armory of the Steward’s House. Elphir, shirtless and covered in perspiration, was giving vent to his frustration by bludgeoning a straw dummy, while Erchirion oiled his sword. They each paused to solemnly acknowledge their father’s entry.
Imrahil waved away the formalities. “I have been so consumed by our concern for Faramir and Beleg that I have not been able to look in on you two,” he apologized.
“We can hardly hold that against you, father,” Elphir insisted. “Marien has been badly shaken by it all, but she has been obliged to spend herself comforting our son. Alphros has not wanted to be alone since it happened, and he has compelled me to promise many times that we would find the guilty man and help cousin Faramir to regain his strength.” He sighed. “I hope I have not promised in vain.”
“As do I,” Imrahil agreed darkly. “Elessar will be setting a bounty on the murderer, whoever he may be.”
“As well he should.” Erchirion scowled. “Any one of us could have been in Thranduil’s company that morning. It could have been Elfírien or Alphros!”
“The thought had occurred to me,” Imrahil said, his jaw tightening. “It could have been me, or indeed Elessar himself. Such recklessness will not go unpunished.”
“Then, why are we here, father?” Erchirion demanded. He had always been the most outspoken of his sons. “We feel superfluous. Why are we not scouring the country for these murderers?”
“You are here because you are my sons,” Imrahil said sharply, “and because the princes of Dol Amroth wait upon the command of the King of Gondor. It is not your place to wander the plains and byways because you have been prepared for greater responsibilities. If you are frustrated, imagine how the Elves must feel!” He stopped himself, realizing he was unjustly releasing his tension upon his family. “Bear your lot with me now,” he said, “because I suspect that Elessar will have abundant need of our skill in the days to come. When the King calls, I expect you to be ready.”
“Yes, my lord,” they said, in crisp military unison.
“Very well.” Abandoning all formality for the moment, Imrahil put his arms around them both. Life was so fragile. They could not afford to take anything for granted, not even the miraculous peace of this Age for which they had all risked so much.
The next days passed uneasily in Minas Anor. Nothing was heard from any of the captains commanding the manhunt, because they had been told not to waste time and resources reporting anything other than success. Several men who openly sympathized with Lord Baldor’s cause were denounced and arrested, but none could be proven to have anything to do with the crime.
Imrahil visited Faramir regularly in the Houses of Healing. The attentive care he received had not been in vain, and his arduous recovery had begun well. After several days of painful coughing, his lungs had begun to clear, and he was finding it easier to breathe normally. He was restless as well, but there was not much he could do before his fractures and burns healed. Diligent cleaning had kept the morbidity out of his wounds, though the process was unpleasant and caused him a great deal of pain.
“I never thought I would live to say it,” Faramir confessed, “but I think I will soon be sick of the scent of athelas.”
“I can understand why,” Imrahil said. “You have been overindulging of late. I suspect they have gleaned almost every sprig of it within two leagues of the city.”
“I am not here by choice, I will remind you,” Faramir laughed. He coughed and spat into a cup, as had become routine. “I cannot recall ever being quite so thoroughly fussed over in all my life. Look what the Elves have done for me this morning.” He carefully pushed up the sleeves of his robe to reveal that his burns had been dressed in fresh fish skins rather than bandages. “They are much less painful now, I am pleased to say, and I will never again suffer a burn to be dressed in anything else.”
“Very innovative,” Imrahil agreed, admiring the Elves handiwork. “We must have our own healers instructed in this method. I am glad to hear of anything that can spare you pain. I hope you will be fit to resume your duties soon. I have been a bit overwhelmed, minding your concerns as well as my own.”
Faramir smiled. “I doubt it. There is no need to comfort me with tales of my indispensability, Uncle. I am certain you have managed it all quite well.”
“Regardless,” Imrahil insisted, “we shall all rejoice to see you on your feet again.”
A page boy was approaching them, apparently hesitant to interrupt. Faramir waved him closer. “Come on, boy. Someone of your profession cannot afford to be so timid.”
“My lords,” he said, bowing stiffly, “the King summons Prince Imrahil to the King’s House at once. There has been news from Ithilien.”
“How intriguing,” Faramir smiled. “Go and find out what it is for me, Uncle.”
“Any more of this indulgence will soon make you insufferable,” Imrahil warned him mischievously. “Peregrin, see that he does not strain himself with all this intense relaxation before I return.”
“I shall do my best,” the Hobbit promised, a bit short of breath. He had just reappeared dragging a small cart laden with all sorts of provisions from the local taverns. “There is not a shopkeeper in this city who would see Lord Faramir want for anything.”
Imrahil left them to enjoy their spoils. He hurried back up into the Citadel to hear the King’s news. He dared to hope for some word of success. There had been no significant development for so many days that they were all feeling restless. But, as he entered the King’s House and found Elessar together with Thranduil, their grim expressions told him at once that it was not to be.
“Imrahil,” Elessar said somberly, “Elvish scouts in Ithilien have discovered the remains of a corpse near the Morgul Vale. It was badly ravaged, but they feel certain the body is that of Beleg, your sister’s husband. They collected what they could, and have removed it to Emyn Arnen.”
Imrahil felt his heart sink. He had suspected the worst, but now it was unavoidable. “Ivriniel must be told,” he said mechanically.
“Indeed,” Elessar agreed, “but not by you, I am afraid. However intolerable Beleg’s murder, the condition of his remains has revealed a more immediate concern. The Elves are certain the body was desecrated by Orcs.”
Imrahil understood at once, and shook himself out of his melancholy. An incursion of Orcs into Gondor could not go unanswered. “Do you wish me to lead a force into Ithilien to seek them out?” he asked.
“I think that would be expedient,” Elessar said.
“I will go as well,” Thranduil decided, then stopped himself with obvious and growing impatience, and added, “if the King will allow it.”
Elessar seemed placed in an awkward position. “I would not risk your blood in Gondor’s troubles,” he said.
“My blood is mine to spend where I will,” Thranduil insisted. “I am wasted here. Gondor’s concerns in Ithilien now impact my people as well, and I have never refused to share any peril of theirs.”
“I will gladly welcome your assistance, my lord, if you offer it freely,” Elessar agreed, “but I would never presume to command it.”
“For the duration of this crisis,” Thranduil said, his eyes alight with bloodlust, “consider it yours to command.”
A small contingent of soldiers rode from Minas Anor the following morning in the quiet before the dawn. Led by Imrahil and Thranduil, the party was hardly more than a collection of their personal guards and attendants; Elessar had little of his army to spare, and there were Men and Elves enough in Emyn Arnen for the task at hand.
Imrahil did his best to clear his mind. He had sent Nerdanel and Erchirion to Ivriniel in his stead. Elphir, as the heir to their principality, would remain in Minas Anor with his family unless Elessar required him elsewhere.
Caras Ernil was only a few hours’ ride across the river from the capital, and they were approaching it as the first light crested the mountains. The stately hills rose out of the gently rolling landscape, casting the valley in prolonged shadow. They were met on the road by a border guard of both Men and Elves who were anxious to receive and direct them toward the city. Imrahil recognized the cautious relief of Faramir’s men, but saw something different and almost incongruous in the Elves. Their eyes brightened with a childlike excitement that their king had come empowered to act in this land on their behalf, absolutely confident that he would prove equal the task.
Imrahil led the party on as the road climbed into the forested slopes. Behind them, one of the guards blew his horn to announce the arrival of the acting Steward. The Elves raised a horn call of their own, one which must have been sounded for centuries amid the trees of Eryn Lasgalen, but had never before been heard in Ithilien. It stirred many voices which would otherwise have remained silent, and Elves appeared in their dozens along the route, drawn inexorably to Thranduil.
The regal stone roads leading into the city had been recently repaired and leveled, and the crumbling buildings had been rebuilt. Though still uncompromisingly Gondorian, Caras Ernil had been designed for beauty and was less severe than Minas Anor, its appearance softened by the surrounding forest. A pool planted with water lilies adorned the central square before the palace, and an impressive plinth stood in its center, the inscriptions upon it indicating that it stood ready for a statue of Elessar. There was a wholesome tranquility about the place that would have seemed incredible if one considered that it had only been six years since the place had been reclaimed from the influence of Mordor. The common name had arisen of convenience while Faramir had labored over an appropriately poetic name for the place, but his ultimate decision had been too long delayed to be effective.
The party dismounted, following Imrahil’s example. Grooms appeared to attend the horses, and Faramir’s seneschal descended the stairs to greet them. “My lords,” he said, bowing deeply, “we are grateful the King saw fit to send you to us so quickly. Will you be wanting refreshment after your ride?”
“Take us to the body,” Imrahil bade him, more abruptly than was usually his wont. “I would see it before all else.”
“At once, my lord.”
They were led into the Steward’s House, through the grand halls and into a discreet room in the back. The remains lay shrouded on a long table. Imrahil steeled himself as the pall was removed, and observed the skeleton with a critical eye. The left arm was clearly truncated above the wrist, an old wound. While that particular misfortune may have been common enough in Gondor, together with a familiar missing tooth it left little room for doubt.
“This is indeed my sister’s husband,” Imrahil said flatly, unable to feel any emotion in that moment. Doubtless it would come later.
“I am truly sorry,” Thranduil said with surprisingly obvious sincerity. Despite having seen more death than Imrahil could fathom, it seemed always to strike the Elvenking deeply. “I liked him very well, despite our brief acquaintance.”
“I regret you did not know him better,” Imrahil agreed as the pall was replaced, feeling the sorrow welling belatedly in his chest. “I have known few worthier men than he.”
Thranduil’s eyes hardened in strangely benevolent way as he recognized Imrahil’s distress. “We cannot restore Beleg’s life,” he said, “but we can avenge his death. Will you come with me now, or shall I return for you?”
“I shall come,” Imrahil said without thinking. At that moment, he wanted to be anywhere else. It was not until they had returned to the courtyard and remounted that he realized he was not certain where they were going or for what purpose. Thranduil had quietly assumed command, and was now allowing the Elvish messengers who had accompanied them from Minas Anor to lead them deeper into the hills.
On any ordinary day, Imrahil imagined the small city the Elves of Ithilien had built for themselves would be a quiet and subtle place, blended with the forest as Faramir had described it. Today, however, was no ordinary day, and scores of Thranduil’s people had turned out to greet him.
Legolas stood on the stairs outside the great hall, flanked by his household. His arm was still supported and bound, but it looked more useful than it had when they had parted last. “Welcome to Emyn Lasgalen, my lords,” he said with a wry smile. “I had hoped to receive you under more auspicious circumstances, but my house is yours all the same.” He greeted his father warmly in their own tongue and said that he knew what he had come for. Then he turned and led them in.
The inside of the hall was adorned with a riot of subtle detail, painted carvings, tapestries, murals and trophies. Against the far wall, in pride of place, a well worn suit of Thranduil’s battle armor stood on a display, a relic cherished by the Lasgalenath as they sojourned in distant lands. They had obviously expected him to come for it sooner or later, and had set beside it other useful items for his convenience, most notably a neat pile of fresh clothes. Quickly and without compunction, Thranduil shed the scorched festival tunic he had been forced to wear since the explosion, and availed himself of a new one.
Imrahil heard Legolas apologize that there had not been time to make the new clothes very fine, an objection which Thranduil immediately dismissed as being of no consequence whatever. Rather than feel neglected, Imrahil was flattered that they thought highly enough of his knowledge of their language to speak naturally in his presence.
Inevitably, Thranduil’s expression sobered as he asked after their wounded. Legolas agreed to take him to them. Imrahil let them go with a wave of his hand, content to wait.
“Prince Imrahil,” Erelas said, appearing at his side, “please sit and rest. Some refreshment has been provided for you and your men.”
Imrahil thanked him and saw that a generous table had indeed been set at the far side of the hall in the dappled morning sunlight. The guardsmen had already helped themselves, and Imrahil was happy to join them. He had begun to regret refusing food at Faramir’s house.
When Thranduil returned it was with new purpose, his face set as if in stone, reminded of his own grievances. His presence and his mood flooded the room immediately, and all the Elves stiffened, ready to leap at his command. Even Imrahil felt it, the coiled energy of a frustrated beast of prey. He and the guardsmen stood as the Elvenking briefly approached the table, just long enough to cut a generous bite of smoked boar and wash it down with a glass of wine.
“Did you find them worse than you expected?” Imrahil asked cautiously. It would have been callous not to inquire, but he almost dreaded the answer.
“They will heal,” Thranduil assured him, “but it will be a long road yet for some. Someone will be held accountable for their blood, just as soon as we have dealt with this distraction here.” He turned away and summoned his guard with a sharp flick of his wrist. Dorthaer and the others immediately began armoring him.
Elven soldiers had begun to gather outside without having been formally called; first twenty, then fifty, then a hundred. Word had spread quickly, and from what Imrahil had heard of life in Mirkwood, its army was well accustomed to mustering at a moment’s notice.
A wild and lusty cry rose from the growing crowd as Thranduil emerged and swung astride his horse. Imrahil followed with the rest of their party as Dorthaer methodically separated those who would accompany them immediately from those who would stand in reserve and those who would serve as scouts that night.
Suitably armed and reinforced, they returned to Caras Ernil to meet with Faramir’s captains.
Imrahil slept fitfully that night, unable to quiet his wandering thoughts. He missed his family, and was plagued by concern for Ivriniel. He was too agitated to mourn Beleg, and too occupied with their plans for the following day to have any peace. The whole situation seemed dangerously close to spinning completely out of hand. Perhaps the contagious energy of the Elves made him restless. None of them were sleeping. They were due to ride well before first light.
At last Imrahil despaired, climbed out of bed and hastily dressed himself. He stirred Ciryon awake, who helped to armor him. He wandered the quiet halls, aimless at first, but inevitably he sought out waking company. He did not actually want to be alone. A soft, familiar rasping sound drew him into the courtyard.
Thranduil sat beside the lily pool, carefully whetting his sword by starlight. He was not alone; the whole courtyard was full of Elves silently coming and going, attending their gear and preparing their weapons.
“Too anxious to sleep, Imrahil?” Thranduil asked. The Elvenking did not seem importuned by his presence, but genuinely concerned. That in itself lightened Imrahil’s heart amid all his swirling cares, that in so short a time he had merited a place among Thranduil’s friends. “That has often been my fate,” he continued, “and I would say to never mind it, but I understand that mortal kind are more adversely affected than we by lack of sleep.”
“That is so,” Imrahil confirmed, seating himself nearby, “and no doubt I shall regret my restlessness in the morning, but that is no help for it now.” He sighed. “This ridiculous interruption by Orcs is extremely ill-timed.”
“Do not be troubled on that score,” Thranduil said, resuming his attentions to his blade. “Orcs are no novelty to me. If we have not secured Ithilien’s borders within three days, I miss my mark.”
Imrahil said nothing, and after a few moments he sensed that Thranduil guessed that was not his only concern.
“You are thinking of your sister.” It was not a question.
Imrahil laughed silently. If he did not, he would weep. “Beleg was never actually of noble blood,” he said. “I remember when he first came to Dol Amroth as a boy, begging to be taken as a squire by one of my father’s Swan Knights. He excelled at everything he put his hand to. Ivrieniel set her sights on him before long, and she was determined to have him one day.”
Thranduil said nothing, but a ghost of a smile touched his lips as he rinsed his sword in the water.
“I have rarely seen two people so perfectly suited to one another,” Imrahil continued. He laughed again. “Beleg was so afraid of offending our father than Ivriniel had at first to ask for her own hand on his behalf. I could well believe that it had been she who had proposed marriage to him.”
Thranduil’s bittersweet expression had depths Imrahil dared not explore. “I have observed that a love as true as that will have its way in spite of all else,” he said gently. “I regret that they have been parted before their time. That is a grief I know something of myself.”
To his chagrin, Imrahil realized that he did not know what had become of Thranduil’s queen, Legolas’ mother. That she had died had almost been an unconscious assumption on his part, a certainty of intuition that had not required further explanation. He would not ask now, although he suspected Thranduil may be in a mood to confide in him. It felt like vulgar curiosity at that moment.
“I would not be so quick to judge the quality of Beleg’s blood,” Thranduil continued, changing the subject. “There is more to nobility than simple accidents of birth, as I am certain you can appreciate. My father and I had no claim of kingship upon the Elves of Eryn Galen except what they granted us when we were adrift in the world, and we have spent our lives honoring their trust. I would like to think our blood has proven noble enough for them.”
“No one who sees them can doubt their love for you,” Imrahil assured him, not that his assurance was necessary. “I did not mean to fault Beleg. He was a prince in all but name. Ivriniel must have heard by now, and I wish I could be with her. I know this will have hurt her more deeply than any loss we have endured before, and to be kept from her by Orcs is almost unbearable.”
“Your lady wife will comfort her when you cannot,” Thranduil said. “Forgive me if I assume too much, but I would venture to observe that you and she are at least as felicitously matched as was your sister. Treasure that bond, trust it, savor it while it lasts. Without it, few men can claim to have truly lived.” He sighed, his eyes fixed on some distant and unseen ideal. Then he returned to himself, hardened, militant. “Meanwhile, we have King Elessar’s interests to consider. Any woman worth her salt, as I assume both your wife and sister to be, will understand that.”
“Indeed,” Imrahil agreed reflexively, although in retrospect he knew it to be true. Ivrieniel would not resent his duties here; she respected, even idolized, a man’s duty to his king. She would forgive him, but he resolved to make good his absence all the same. She deserved that much.
“Our time has come,” Thranduil observed, looking beyond Imrahil. An Elvish scout was approaching. He stopped and offered his habitual obeisance to his king, then hurried to acknowledge the Prince of Dol Amroth after an unsubtle nod from Thranduil in Imrahil’s direction.
“We now believe that Orcs have been descending out of Cirith Ungol into the forest surrounding the Morgul Vale,” the scout reported. “The signs indicate that they do not return daily, but there is reason to believe they will be there tonight. The scouts await your command, my lords.”
Thranduil looked to Imrahil.
“The scouts will hold their positions,” Imrahil decided, “and report the location of the Orcs if they are sighted. If possible, do not engage them until we have brought up the body of our force.”
The scout bowed again. “Understood. We will await your arrival, my lords.”
After the preparations of the previous evening, it took less than an hour to assemble the soldiers and the captains, a small but capable force one hundred strong. A vanguard of scouts and Rangers led the way, followed by Imrahil, Thranduil, and the foot soldiers. The Morgul Vale was at least thirteen leagues distant, and it would be a long journey yet. With any luck, they could be in position before the sun set.
It was a wearily monotonous march through the deep places of the Ithilien woodland. Meals were taken on the move, and only two halts were called in the course of the day, those only in order that the men would arrive in a fit state to fight.
Just as the westering sun cast an orange glow over the sky, they arrived within sight of Minas Morgul. It was still a dreadful place with a cold and foul aura that was difficult to endure. Most of the Gondorians had already faced such a horror by advancing upon Mordor itself during the war, and Imrahil supposed most of the Elves had experienced something of Dol Guldur, but still there was noticeable trepidation throughout the ranks.
“Take courage,” Thranduil said, spurring his horse forward. “Even the bravest hearts can feel it. There are no cowards here.”
Imrahil could not help but admire his firm paternal leadership, and the men did stiffen almost imperceptibly as the Elvenking passed. He was quite correct; no man could be truly brave who did not know fear. Fear was not shameful, fear was natural, and in those few words he had convinced them that even mighty Thranduil knew fear, and yet he advanced. They would do no less.
The main force was halted in position upwind of the valley. The scouts who had been watching the area for days came to make their report as dusk fell. “The Orcs appear to be descending from Minas Morgul under cover of darkness to hunt,” the first among them said. “Based on their past behavior, we expect them to show themselves tonight. There are no more than two dozen of them, and should not prove any great challenge for this force, my lords.”
Thranduil nodded gravely. “We will be prepared to engage, whether they be massed or dispersed,” he said. “Let us make short work of this.”
Imrahil remained with him so that they could better coordinate their command. A captain of the Rangers named Drambor would lead the vanguard.
Night fell slowly, or at least it seemed so in the enforced silence. No one spoke, no one moved, and the noise of the nocturnal insects soon masked what noise could not be helped. The valley was eventually lost in darkness, a growing mass of cloud shrouding the moon. The Elves remained especially attentive, knowing the Men were relying upon their sight.
It became a very wearisome wait after a few hours in the dark, and the looming presence of Minas Morgul made it decidedly unpleasant. Imrahil rested his eyes for a moment, knowing many sharper than his own continued the watch. Thranduil stood as if made of stone, hardly seeming to breathe. He was an old hunter, and knew his craft. The horses were anxious and restive, but each was minded by an Elf tasked with keeping the animals in order.
Another hour passed. A stiffening wind stirred the clouds, occasionally admitting a brief glow of silver moonlight. A whispered intake of breath beside him made Imrahil look out into the valley again. Still no one moved, but the air seemed thick with anticipation now that their quarry had been spotted.
The figures seemed small at this distance, but were unmistakable as they entered the relative emptiness of the valley. The Orcs seemed cautious, but not unduly concerned, leaving the mountains in small groups; first three, then six, then ten. The scouts had been quite correct. The final tally, if Imrahil’s eyes still served, was seventeen. When the Orcs had strayed far enough from their cover, Drambor would halt their progress while he and Thranduil swept them from the rear, closing the net. It would be quick and clean, so long as no one lost his nerve and sprang the trap too soon.
Imrahil frowned. The Orcs had stopped and seemed to hesitate. The stillness of the night suddenly seemed as fragile as glass as he silently willed them to disregard their instincts and continue south. Apparently, they were of a different mind. The foremost party turned tail and signaled a retreat.
Thranduil cursed and leapt astride his horse as Drambor’s archers loosed their shafts and his infantry gave chase. Imrahil also swung into the saddle and followed as the Elvenking led their few horsemen in a desperate chase to close the gap to the north before the Orcs regained the mountains.
There was little enough time to think as they galloped into the valley, but Imrahil was instinctively aware of how exposed they had become. The unexpected distance had left their infantry far behind, stripping them of more than half their strength. It was unnerving enough to charge toward Minas Morgul in the dead of night without also knowing one was rapidly advancing beyond the reach of all help.
It would be a near-run race. The Orcs were surprisingly swift on their feet, but Thranduil was closing the distance, riding with the terrible single-minded focus of a predator.
Imrahil heard a guttural roar as a dark shape flew across their path and tore Thranduil from his horse. His own mount panicked and spun off the road, but Imrahil managed to keep his seat. His heart thundering against his ribs, he had enough presence of mind to return immediately and assume command. He ordered ahead those riders who had already overtaken them, and several more who followed, but halted the last two. Providentially, they were both Elves.
“King Thranduil has been attacked,” Imrahil hurried to explain, indicating the direction.
“Follow us, my lord, if you will!” they bid him, turning aside at once. Imrahil followed. The crashing of a tremendous struggle in the covert guided them forward.
Then all the noise abruptly ceased. Fearing the worst, Imrahil dismounted and secured his horse as the Elves did the same and crept forward on foot. Several paces into the underwood, they hesitated and shared a strange look. Imrahil was about to question them when he also heard what had confounded them. He heard voices, not strained as he might have expected, but engaged in stiff conversation. The Elves moved to advance further, but Thranduil’s voice sternly bid them stand down. They stood amidst the tall grass, abandoning all pretence of stealth, Imrahil with them.
The fleeting moonlight illuminated an extraordinary scene. The Elvenking and an enormous Uruk were still entangled on the ground, locked in a hostile embrace which bespoke the raw violence of the fight, yet neither seemed willing to dispatch the other. They remained at that awkward impasse for some time, their words too indistinct for Imrahil to make out.
Finally, very slowly, they released one another and regained their feet. Imrahil realized he had been holding his breath, and exhaled. Thranduil and the Uruk regarded each other in silence for another long moment and exchanged a few more quiet words. Then, incredibly, the Uruk grudgingly submitted himself to be bound.
At Thranduil’s signal, the two Elves rushed forward to secure their unexpected prisoner. Their king gave them some terse orders and then returned out of the brush. Imrahil could now see that he was bleeding from several significant injuries, but none seemed to affect him so much as the new shadow behind his eyes. Though not unnerved, he seemed strangely shaken.
Imrahil was burning with curiosity. “My lord, what happened?”
Thranduil hesitated. “Even I am not yet certain,” he said, wiping a trickle of blood from his brow. “I have much to consider, and much to discuss with you, but first we must retrieve Captain Drambor and gather our men.”
“Agreed,” Imrahil said, but Thranduil had already turned and whistled for his horse.
The rest of the horsemen were returning from the charge. “The Orcs evaded us, my lord,” the foremost among them reported to Imrahil. “They retreated into the mountains, but did us no violence. We sustained no losses.”
“Neither did we,” Imrahil sighed, “although it may easily have been otherwise. Thank you, captain. Return across the Morgulduin and await further orders.”
As their forces regrouped south of the stream, Imrahil turned his horse and went in search of Thranduil, strangely irritated. The entire excursion seemed to have been for naught, and he was keen to have some answers. When at last he found him among the rest of the party on the southern bank of the stream, the Elvenking was having his wounds cleaned and dressed.
“You seem to be the only casualty, my lord,” Imrahil observed with a sharp smile. “How did you manage to charm the beast into sparing your life?”
“Quite the contrary, my friend,” Thranduil said. “It was he who charmed me. I have assured him of an immunity from harm which may not be wholly within my power to grant, so I must insist that you also afford him your protection.”
Imrahil bit his tongue, suppressing his first reaction, and carefully reframed his reply. “I imagine you have a compelling reason for taking such liberties,” he said.
Thranduil met his gaze unflinchingly, clearly understanding his frustration and incredulity. “I do.” He waved away the healer’s attentions and stood. “Come, walk with me.”
Thranduil led him several paces away from the camp and into the forest. The wind was stiffening, the thick spring leaves rustling loudly in anticipation of a storm. There would be rain before they regained Caras Ernil.
“I may have been overhasty when I said that Orcs could no longer surprise me,” Thranduil said at last. “I have never before encountered one like him, and I am convinced we must proceed with utmost caution. Nothing is as it seems anymore.”
Imrahil scoffed. “The beast attacked you with malicious intent. I see no novelty in that.”
“But he did not attack me,” Thranduil insisted. “He unhorsed me and merely stopped me killing him, defending the retreat. That is what first arrested my attention. I believed I was defending myself, yet I found I was the aggressor. There is an air about him for which I am completely unable to account.”
“What are you saying?” Imrahil demanded. “Are we to accord these Orcs greater consequence simply because they have acquired new civility in their speech?”
“I am saying that I am intrigued,” Thranduil persisted. “I believe this matter may prove to be quite serious, and therefore worthy Elessar’s attention. I could attempt to explain myself in detail, but I fear this is neither the time nor the place. A courier may yet arrive at Minas Anor soon enough for the King to meet our return to Caras Ernil.”
This incredible turn of events continued becoming ever stranger. Imrahil’s head was spinning as he considered calling Elessar away from Minas Anor at a time like this to come gawk at an Orc, but Thranduil was in earnest, and someone of his experience was not to be taken lightly.
“Prince Imrahil!” It was Captain Drambor, pushing his way through the lashing foliage. “My lords, the men are agreed that they desire to be gone from here more than they desire to rest. With your permission, we are prepared to march south at your command.”
Imrahil sighed. There was no time to be overly cautious. “Very well, Captain. Form the line and begin the march.” He turned to Thranduil. “Dispatch whatever messenger you wish. I trust this will all become clearer tomorrow.”
They arrived back at Caras Ernil just after the wet, grey dawn. The rain was persistent and gave no indication of lessening. Imrahil was by no means the only one who was glad of dry clothes and a warm meal.
King Elessar rode into the city only an hour later amidst the torrential downpour. Imrahil met him at the door and was not surprised to find him in an unpleasant mood. “I came with all haste out of regard for our friend, the King of Eryn Lasglen,” he said, peeling off his wet cloak and passing it to the footman, “but the purpose of his summons was not entirely clear.”
Imrahil nodded. “We have only just arrived ourselves, and I have not yet had an opportunity to seek further explanation. The prisoner is secured in the cells where, I understand, Thranduil intends to meet us. Shall I go ahead or wait for you, my lord?”
Elessar waved him away, his irritation blunted by his growing curiosity. “Go ahead,” he said, continuing on through the corridor toward the rooms that always stood ready for him. “I will follow.”
Imrahil made his way downstairs to the small prison attached to Faramir’s house. He slowed as he reached the bottom, strangely reluctant to enter. In the shadows cast by the lamplight, Thranduil stood close against the iron bars, eye to eye with the Uruk, deep in another conversation of their own. An unsettling fascination seemed to draw them together, a grudging respect between enemies that was becoming something more personal. Imrahil had to admit that at first glance this Orc did seem unexpectedly patrician, very different from the others he had encountered. He was prouder, cleaner, better spoken. The bestial abandon was gone, and in that Imrahil recognized what had piqued Thranduil’s interest. Indeed, at that moment, the Uruk and the Elvenking seemed two sides of the same coin, revealing an ancient kinship that made Imrahil’s skin crawl. He blinked, trying to banish the illusion.
Thranduil glanced in his direction. He quietly took his leave of the prisoner and came to join Imrahil in the antechamber. At almost the same moment, Elessar descended the stairway.
“Ah,” Thranduil said. “I did hope you could see him for yourself, Aragorn. I doubted any description of mine could do him justice.”
“Who?” Elessar asked impatiently.
“His name is Draughâsh,” Thranduil told them. “He and the others who have allied with him have been living by stealth in Cirith Ungol since they found themselves unwelcome on both sides of the mountains. The hardship has apparently made philosophers of them.”
Elessar’s eyes narrowed sharply.
“I would not have believed it had I not seen it,” Thranduil allowed, “but these are interesting times. It may be that we must reconsider many things before we proceed.”
Elessar pushed past them both and approached the cell. He still seemed incredulous, although Imrahil could see that his mind was furiously turning with many possibilities. The Uruk stared back at him, surly and impatient, but with an injured dignity that was too obvious to be ignored. It was disarming, but unpleasantly so.
“What am I to do with you,” Elessar wondered aloud, “captured trespassing in my country? My law does not suffer Orcs to enter Ithilien.”
“Your law would have us starve in the mountains,” Draughâsh retorted. “We seek no quarrel with Gondor, but we will not be denied the means to survive.”
“How is it possible that I will not quarrel with those who violate my borders and feast upon my subjects?” Elessar demanded.
Draughâsh snarled. “Old habits will not be conquered in a day,” he said. “The man was dead, and we had more need of his meat than he. I tell you again, we want no fight with Gondor, but I could tell you much of some that do.”
“And why should I listen?” Elessar countered. “I have no reason to trust you.”
“The loss is yours,” Draughâsh said with a snide smile. “Send back the Elf. He has reason enough.”
“You will speak to me or to no one,” Elessar demanded. “What was your purpose in entering Gondor?”
“We came to hunt lest we starve.”
“Why did you attack the Elvenking?”
“I was defending my people whom he would have slaughtered.”
“Why, then, did you spare his life?”
A low growl rumbled in Draughâsh’s throat as he wearied of the questioning. “Because he had done nothing deserving of death!” he spat at last. “I have already been made to destroy too much that is good, and I will not be compelled to do evil again.”
It was not an answer expected of an Orc. Elessar glanced fleetingly at Thranduil, who nodded. He stared piercingly at the Uruk a few moments more, and then abruptly turned and left the dungeon. Imrahil and Thranduil followed.
Upstairs, the King began pacing in front of the fire on the hearth, the warmth providing some respite after the damp below. “Thranduil, make me understand,” he said at last.
“You must consider how deeply the realities of the world have been altered since the war,” Thranduil explained. “There are very few creatures who are evil without the choice to be otherwise. Even Morgoth was pure in his beginning. We have all been told how he made Orcs from Elves, and that after his defeat Sauron took them for his own. Now Sauron is gone, and his driving hatred with him, leaving these wretches free at last to think.”
“Are you saying you believe all Orcs will now begin living in virtue?”
Thranduil scoffed impatiently. “None may presume to expect that,” he said, “any more than I can pretend that all Elves have been gracious or that all Men have been worthy, but I am beginning to believe that all Orcs may now have awakened to that possibility, and the ramifications will be quite serious. As often as I have bloodied my sword, I have not yet become a murderer, and I do not intend to begin now through willful ignorance.”
It was a startling possibility to consider, that an entire race considered to be mindless monsters had possibly remembered how to be something more. Imrahil thought of Draughâsh and his companions, shunned by Men and their own kind alike, trying to rediscover their lost dignity in secret. It must be a difficult and lonely existence, and for a moment he reflected that it would have been easier in their position to abandon the attempt and lead instead the vicious and selfish lives so often chosen by desperate people. Why were they determined to make such sacrifices? Immediately he knew they might as well ask why slaves desire to be free. Some ideals are worth whatever sacrifice may be required.
Elessar stared silently into the fire, thinking. “The question certainly merits further investigation,” he finally agreed. “You did well to send for me. But, regardless of the larger implications, our present situation remains our first concern. The prisoner intimated that he may have knowledge of enemies of Gondor. What would you, both of you, counsel me to do? Should I trust him?”
Imrahil was not yet ready to venture an opinion. Even Thranduil hesitated a moment before committing to an answer.
“I believe it would be folly to dismiss him outright,” the Elvenking said at last. “I have nothing more than my own instinct to convince you, but I would hear him.”
“It may be difficult to justify acting upon any accusations made by a captive Uruk,” Imrahil observed.
“Let us fight that battle when we come to it,” Elessar said. “If he is in earnest, perhaps Draughâsh knows something of the man who brought Beleg’s body this far from Cormallen.” He steeled himself for a moment, staring into the flames, and then rose to return to the cells.
Draughâsh did not look surprised by their return. He seemed to have been expecting them, but apparently had respect enough for King Elessar’s pride to refrain from gloating.
“The Elvenking believes you to be sincere,” Elessar said crisply, “and his trust is not to be lightly dismissed. I am resolved to give you a hearing. Who are these enemies of Gondor?”
Draughâsh deliberately savored the moment before condescending to reply. “You may have reason to credit my veracity,” he said, “but what reason have I to credit yours? What pledge am I to be given?”
The King’s eyes narrowed. The tables had been turned. It was true that Orcs had never expected or received mercy from anyone in the past. Perhaps Draughâsh could be forgiven for expecting to be treated with the same savagery meted out to his race in previous ages.
“I will spare your life,” Elessar promised, “should your information prove to be accurate. You will be free to return to your people, although I cannot promise that you or they will ever be welcome in Gondor.”
“You are nothing if not a Man of your word, Elessar,” Draughâsh growled. “We know that well enough. Very well. Your enemy is a corsair who slinks among you unseen, Radhruin by name. It was he who brought the dead man to us. It is said that he often acts as the creature of the Lord of Pelargir, who has long been in league with Umbar.”
Elessar did not move. His face might have been set in granite, though his color drained. Imrahil, too, began to consider past events in the light of this accusation, and he felt lightheaded as well. A tall, dark, swarthy man had been described by the stable boys, a description that may well fit a corsair. He could not imagine any reason for such a man to act at such great risk in such a petty way against the Elvenking if not in the employ of some larger purpose.
“You must have compelling reasons to accuse a Lord of Gondor of such blatant treason,” Elessar said icily.
“The Lords of Pelargir have been in league with Umbar for three generations,” Draughâsh said, realizing the gravity of the revelation. “Did you know nothing of it?”
Elessar left the dungeon in a swirl of black and white. Imrahil rushed to follow him, his extremities numb with shock. He knew Lord Falathar had never been popular, but he had not imagined him to be a traitor. All the mysterious crimes of the past weeks were falling shatteringly into place, but he did not yet know how to make sense of them.
Upstairs, Elessar turned on them, a wild gleam in his eyes. “It is because of my assessment,” he declared. “They have determined to murder Prince Faramir and to blame Lord Baldor! Erellont would have been the obvious heir to Denethor’s line through his mother. I have been blind! Thranduil, I am mortified that your life might have been forfeit to this plot.”
“They are not the first who have failed to kill me,” Thranduil said, remarkably calm now that an explanation had been discovered. “Now they shall be made to regret it, as have many before them. What will you do?”
“We cannot yet reveal who has betrayed them,” Elessar replied, thinking even as he spoke. “Considering how awry their plans have gone, both Falathar and Erellont are fools if they have not already fled. We must find this corsair and confirm his allegiance to Pelargir immediately.”
“He will be found,” Thranduil promised. “Leave him to me.”
“Imrahil,” Elessar continued, “you must summon the Swan Knights. We march upon Pelargir tomorrow.”
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