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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.”
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