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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.”
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