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(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.
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