2. The White City
The White City
In the year 2002 of the Third Age, Minas Ithil was captured by the captain of the ring wraiths, the nazgûl, and from then on was known as Minas Morgul and became a place of fear and dread. As the shadow lengthened, Minas Arnor was renamed Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, for the constant vigilance against the threat of Mordor, and ever after it bore the brunt of the Enemy's hatred.
(Turgon: A brief history of Gondor)
Minas Tirith, May of Third Age 3020.
A jolt ran through the ship as it touched its berth and the sailors called out to the dockhands to fasten the ropes that had been thrown down. Lothíriel stayed well out of the way of the men rushing about, intent on their tasks. However, she had no intention of going down to her stuffy little cabin again. Anyway, she had been evicted from it by her maid, who was getting their things ready for disembarkation. They had been favoured with a following wind all morning and were just about to dock at the Harlond: the busy harbour that served the White City.
Filled with excitement, she grabbed the railing more tightly and took a deep breath. Gone was the tang of salt and gone were the plaintive cries of the sea gulls. Instead the air was filled with the high squeaks of the swallows that made their nests under the eaves of the houses of Minas Tirith, and the cool green smell of the river was overlaid with that of freshly mown hay. After an absence of eight years she was finally coming back to the place she loved.
Lothíriel had grown up in the most beautiful city of Gondor, in the high-vaulted and elegant halls of the palace of the Princes of Dol Amroth. Cooled by sea breezes in the summer and blessed with a temperate climate in the winter, her native city had long been acknowledged as the fairest dwelling place in the realm of Gondor. Lothíriel's room had faced west, overlooking the ever-changing waters of the Bay of Belfalas, shading from blue to green to molten gold as the day progressed. Indeed the sea longing should have been bred into her very bones. But instead the first time she had visited Minas Tirith as a small child, she had lost her heart to the White City.
The oppressive heat in the summer months and the cold winds that buffeted it the rest of the time had never bothered her. Even the ever-present threat of the Enemy had not affected her, for she had been convinced that nothing could ever defeat her splendid cousins Boromir and Faramir, who sometimes could be persuaded to give a grubby little princess a ride on their magnificent horses. Now those days were gone forever, of course, with Faramir getting ready to marry and settle down in Southern Ithilien and Boromir dying far from the home he loved. With an effort, Lothíriel banished these sad thoughts. She was determined not to let anything spoil the occasion of her return to Minas Tirith.
"Excited, little sister?"
She turned to her brother Amrothos, who had come up behind her unnoticed and nodded, too preoccupied to protest at his calling her little. The shortest of Prince Imrahil's offspring, she had long ago given up the hope for a further growth spurt and had resigned herself to being no more than middling tall, a fact about which her brothers liked to tease her. Now she reached for Amrothos's arm.
"Can we alight yet?" she asked.
"Oh, I think so," he replied. "Let's have a look if father has sent somebody to greet us. After all, we're expected."
He took her by the arm and helped her down the steep steps from the forecastle to the main deck. Here the gangway had already been deployed, but Lothíriel had to curb her impatience while they took their leave of the captain. Finally all the pleasantries had been exchanged and their good-byes said. He insisted on carefully escorting her off his ship himself, for as he pointed out, the wood of the gangway was slippery. For once she didn't mind as much as she usually would have, because she was simply too eager to set foot on land again. As it happened, she was even grateful for it, because at first the land had the alarming tendency to sway under her feet and it took her a moment to find her balance.
Then somebody called her name and without warning she was enveloped in a bear hug.
"Elphir!" she exclaimed rather breathlessly, recognising her eldest brother at once, and hugging him back as hard as she could.
It had been over a year since that terrible day when her father and brothers had left Dol Amroth to join the defence of Minas Tirith against Sauron's forces and he had not been home since. He had suffered an injury in the final battle at the Black Gate, and although he had written to say that he had recovered, it was not the same as actually being able to touch him again and to hear his voice.
"Did you have a good journey?" he asked, letting go of her at last.
Lothíriel took a much-needed breath of air. Her brother sometimes underestimated his own strength.
"Thoroughly boring," she said and smiled up at him.
"Our sister was disappointed we didn't encounter any corsairs and weren't swept off to uncharted waters by freak storms," Amrothos joked.
"You have no sense of adventure," she shot back, causing Elphir to laugh.
"I can see you two are still bickering away like an old, married couple," he said, "it seems some things at least never change. Let's get the horses and we can talk some more on the way."
Lothíriel wondered what horse they would produce for her, but she did know that it was bound to be the oldest and most lethargic animal in her father's stable. No doubt she would make herself a complete laughingstock, riding between her brothers on their purebred warhorses. However, once he had mounted, her eldest brother told Amrothos to toss her up behind him.
"I've brought your special pad and you can ride pillion behind me," he told her, "Herefara won't mind carrying double."
"Herefara?" she queried as she arranged her skirts and then slipped her arm around his waist, "What kind of name is that?"
"Rohirric," Elphir explained. "The horse was a gift from King Éomer."
"How come the King of Rohan has given you a horse for a gift?" she asked. "I thought the Rohirrim hardly ever parted with them."
"Actually it was a gift for father," Elphir explained, "but you know how attached he is to Swift, he would never ride another horse. I think it was meant to express King Éomer's gratitude."
Lothíriel felt a twinge of guilt when she thought of Swift's predecessor, dead these eight years, who had been equally beloved.
"Gratitude for what?" she asked.
"For all the grain we sent them over the past winter. The Rohirrim would have had a hard time without it."
Since she had nothing to do with the running of Dol Amroth, she had not been aware that the wagonloads full of supplies being sent to Minas Tirith over the winter had been meant for the Rohirrim.
"He's beautiful," Amrothos remarked, and there was a hint of envy in his voice.
While they exchanged opinions of all the finer points of the gelding, Lothíriel let her mind wander. Herefara, she repeated to herself. The name had a foreign ring, making her think of wide, open grasslands and charging bands of riders with their blond hair flowing behind them in the wind. She did not say anything, though, for Amrothos liked nothing better than to tease her about her predilection for listening to stories of the Ring War.
They soon left the bustle of the busy port behind them and the talk turned to family matters. Elphir's wife and young son had taken refuge in Dol Amroth during the war, but had now moved back into the town house situated on the Sixth Level.
"Annarima has gone to visit her mother for the day and has taken Alphros with her," he explained, "but they will be back for the evening meal. You can have a rest while I go and fetch them."
Lothíriel knew it was useless to point out that she did not feel tired at all and had every intention of exploring her old home, so she just made an affirmative sound.
"It's wonderful to be back after such a long time," she said.
"The house hasn't changed much," Elphir told her, "so you won't have any trouble finding your way about it."
She nodded. "What about the city, though," she asked. "Father said that there is a lot of building going on?"
"That's true," her brother replied. "King Elessar is determined to repopulate Minas Tirith and many of the empty and ruined houses are being restored."
Lothíriel tried to imagine the city returned to its former glory, but could not quite manage it. The abandoned houses with their neglected, overgrown gardens had been their favourite playgrounds as children. Maybe her love for Minas Tirith came from the fact that here, they had been able to play truant and disappear for whole afternoons at a stretch from the stern eye of authority.
It was a warm day and with the sun beating down on her unprotected head and back, she soon became aware of the fact that she was dressed far too warmly in her leather riding habit. At least the way from the Harlond to the Great Gates was not far, but before long a pervasive stench started to fill the air. Lothíriel wrinkled her nose and shifted on the saddle. She had forgotten that the tanneries were situated outside the southern wall, where the stink of rotting hides and stale urine would not bother the inhabitants of Minas Tirith.
"Welcome to the beauteous White City," Amrothos remarked. "It's a shame the orcs did not do a better job of destroying these huts, but maybe the smell was too much even for them."
Elphir laughed. "There was talk of rebuilding them closer to the river, but the tanners did not want to live too far away from the safety of the city walls."
Lothíriel shuddered. "Well, I can't blame them. It's hard to believe that the threat of the Enemy is finally over. Is it true that the whole of the Pelennor was filled by the orc host?"
"Not all of it," Elphir answered. "They were mostly massed to the east and south of the gate, ready for the final assault."
Amrothos spoke up. "I remember standing at the lookout on the Seventh Level and seeing nothing but a sea of black, except for the thousands of torches they carried."
The lookout had been one of her favourite places, for it offered an unrivalled view of the green fields running down to the Anduin and the mountains behind them. She and Amrothos had been banned from it, though, after they had been caught one summer spitting cherry stones down on the men guarding the main gates seven hundred feet bellow them. Her uncle Denethor had not been amused and for the rest of the summer they had had to supply the guards on duty with water. Not that she had minded in the end, for the men had turned out to know the most interesting stories about the people who passed through the gates every day.
"Did you see the Rohirrim charge?" she asked.
"That was later," he replied. "I was on my way down to the gates by then. But I heard their horns, surely the most welcome sound in my entire life."
She had heard of the great horns of the North blowing as the day broke over the Pelennor Fields and gave a sigh. "I wish I'd been there."
"Oh, I know, I would have been scared witless," she added, before either of her brothers could reply to this, "but I would still have liked to witness it. The coming of the Rohirrim, the slaying of the Witch King, mûmakil..."
"If I'd known, I would have kept a mûmak for you," Amrothos remarked dryly, "but they are rather expensive to feed."
Elphir snorted with amusement. "Believe me, little sister, you were much better off staying in Dol Amroth. Even Lady Éowyn nearly died that day, and she's a shield maiden of Rohan."
His voice held that mix of awe and admiration that even her father betrayed at the mere mention of the name of Faramir's future wife. It was strange to think that a completely unknown woman from the north and a decisive moment on the battlefield should eventually lead to her own return to Minas Tirith.
"Have the Rohirrim arrived for the wedding yet?" she asked Elphir.
"Some days ago. They have set up an encampment to the north of the city, just inside the Rammas Echor."
She felt a frisson of nervousness run down her spine. "Are there lots of guests expected?"
"Oh yes," Elphir laughed. "The city is bursting at the seams with visitors and according to King Éomer, half of Rohan has decided to attend."
Involuntarily she tightened her hold around his waist, apprehensive at the thought of so many unknown eyes watching her. Knowing herself, she would probably spill wine down the bride's dress at the climax of the ceremony. For a moment she almost wished herself back in the safety of Dol Amroth, but then sternly banished that thought. After all, she had wanted to return to Minas Tirith, and if this was the price she had to pay, she would do so.
"Don't worry, Lothíriel," Amrothos said gently, "You'll manage fine."
She wondered what he had read in her face. Schooling her features had always been more difficult for her than controlling her voice.
"So it's true then?" Elphir asked. "Lady Éowyn has requested you to be her witness at the wedding?"
"She has," Lothíriel confirmed.
"Father wasn't too well pleased," Amrothos chuckled, "but what could he do when the slayer of the Witch King herself specifically asked for Lothíriel."
"I can imagine," Elphir agreed. "Do you know what made her ask for you, though?"
"I haven't got the faintest idea," Lothíriel admitted.
"Does she know about..." his voice trailed off.
"I imagine Faramir would have told her," Lothíriel replied repressively.
At least she hoped so, or Lady Éowyn would get a bit of a surprise when she met her for the first time. After all, she did not want to spoil the other woman's wedding, especially as she felt deeply grateful for the opportunity of returning to Minas Tirith again. After her father had had that dreadful quarrel with her uncle, she had not thought she would ever again do so.
As they neared the Great Gates that marked the entrance to the city, the press of people on the road thickened and they had to slow the horses. From the clipped accents of the inhabitants of Minas Tirith to the slow drawl of the south, every possible variation of Westron could be heard, and every now and again she even caught a snatch of a foreign language.
"What are all those colourful tents straight ahead?" Amrothos asked after a while, moving onto safer ground.
"So many people have arrived for the celebration that a impromptu fair has sprung up outside the gates," Elphir explained.
"Oh, will you take me?" Lothíriel exclaimed in delight and both her brothers laughed.
"Only if you behave yourself," Elphir replied with mock severity.
"But I always do," she replied in her most dulcet tones.
Elphir just groaned. "I mean it this time, Lothíriel," he said. "All the nobles of Gondor will be assembled at court. Don't forget you will be seen as representing Dol Amroth."
"I know," she replied, affronted, "and I will comport myself with perfect decorum."
"Well, try to stick close to Annarima and follow her lead." Her brother didn't sound completely convinced.
Lothíriel frowned, for she did not get along particularly well with her sister-in-law. "I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself," she protested.
"Just remember, you're not in Dol Amroth. There, everybody knows you and makes allowances."
She gritted her teeth and suppressed the sharp retort that rose to her lips. Fortunately at this point they passed the gates and at the sound of their horses' hooves echoing back from the stone walls on either side, some of her earlier excitement came back again. Next, they turned left along the main road up to the Citadel. It would take them a while to make their way up to the Sixth Level where the town house was situated. Lothíriel knew the way by heart: every turn of the road, every fountain they would pass, every loose cobble on the way, she thought to herself. Did the numerous shortcuts across the gardens that they had often taken as children still exist, and who used them now? At least they would not have to pass the Houses of Healing. She knew that place far too well and hoped never to have to set foot inside it again.
Her brothers had fallen silent as they navigated the steadily rising road through the throng of people. Lothíriel had to admit that the gelding had a very smooth gait.
"Will I meet the King and Queen of Gondor?" she asked.
"Tomorrow night is a banquet and dance," Elphir replied, "and I expect you'll be introduced to them there. So remember..."
"...not to speak until spoken to, to curtsey deeply and not to introduce any topic of conversation that could be in the least controversial," she finished his sentence for him.
"Is that correct?" she asked brightly.
Beside them, Amrothos chuckled and even Elphir was forced into a laugh. "Just remember that those two are unlike anybody else you are ever likely to meet."
She was intrigued. "In what way?"
"Well," he hesitated, "as you know Queen Arwen is an elf, but the king has something about him, too, like one of the Numenoreans come back in time. It's difficult to explain," he finished a bit sheepishly.
Lothíriel was surprised to have her matter-of-fact elder brother at a loss for words.
"Very well," she said meekly. "I promise to behave myself. And what about the King of Rohan?"
"I suppose you'll be introduced to him at the same time," he said, "so keep in mind what I said about proper behaviour. We need this man's good-will for the future."
"I know," she groaned. "Really, Elphir, do you have to keep harping on it?"
"I just recall what happened when Lord Pelendur visited Dol Amroth last year," Elphir pointed out.
Lothíriel interrupted him at once. "That's different. He deserved it!" she exclaimed.
"Even so, you were extremely rude to him, so keep a guard on your temper this time."
"Do you know what he did?" she retorted heatedly. "He..."
"Let's not go into the details of that old story," Amrothos interrupted hurriedly. "After all, Lothíriel is extremely unlikely to exchange more than a couple of polite words with the King of Rohan anyway."
"I suppose so," Elphir conceded. "He is very much sought after."
"Ah, so my informants were right?" Amrothos asked. "The King of Rohan is here to seek a wife?"
"Rumour has it so," Elphir replied, "and all the ladies of the court seem to think so, anyway. The fact that he's quite handsome as well doesn't help either."
"What are the odds, then?" Amrothos asked.
"The odds?" Lothíriel was rather confused.
"Some of the younger courtiers, friends of Amrothos, are betting on which of the ladies is going to capture him," Elphir explained.
"Capture him? That sounds a bit like a hunt." She wasn't sure if she liked the sound of it.
"Oh, have no doubt, that's exactly what it is," her youngest brother drawled. "I wonder if he can hear the hounds baying at his heels yet."
Lothíriel couldn't help chuckling at the picture that came to mind - a pack of ladies in their court finery chasing the King of Rohan through the woods.
"What are the odds then?" she asked, intrigued despite herself.
"At the moment, the favourite is Lady Wilwarin at three to one, with the others trailing close behind her," Elphir said with a laugh. The lady in question was in fact his sister-in-law and was well known for her outstanding beauty and impeccable manners.
"Lady Wilwarin? His fate is sealed then," Amrothos quipped.
She had to chuckle again, but at the same time she felt slightly sorry for the unknown king. After all he had rescued Minas Tirith, including her father and brothers, from the forces of Sauron. Still, she told herself, surely he could look after his own affairs and it was really none of her concern.
Then they turned the corner into the street where their house was situated and all thoughts of the King of Rohan were forgotten as the joy of coming home swept through her.