11. Chapter 11
The first assault on Lady Aearin didn't go well. Imrahil's attempt to ask her about the books thwarted by the manoeuvrings of the lady herself, and efforts made by Glavror to hog his attention. The annoying man seemed determined to puff off his wealth. In the end, bored and irritated, Imrahil caught Sergion's eye and they made their excuses. He was heartily glad when the door closed behind them and they stepped out into a deserted street.
Halfway up the steep steps that connected the fifth level of the City to the sixth, Imrahil decided that sense dictated he should ignore his injured pride and forget a woman who obviously had no interest in him. Why waste his time! Frustration made him increase his pace, and he bounded up the next flight, not looking back to see if Sergion was keeping up. The shortcut hugged the outer wall of the gardens belonging to the Healing Houses, and the damp air hung heavy with the fragrance of night-scented flowers. He recognised evening primrose and sweet rocket from time spent in his mother's garden, but no tang of the sea salted his lips. He should go home and enjoy some peace while it lasted. With the Corsairs out of action for a while at least, there would be time to sail and swim for pleasure….
"We were right about Lanthir being in Ithilien." Sergion interrupted his musings, matching him step for step, his breathing still even in spite of the fast pace upwards.
"Were we?" It annoyed him that Sergion had easily managed to get through Aearin's defences, but he pushed the thought aside impatiently, having just decided not to pursue his interest. "So, I imagine whatever land they held was lost some time ago."
"Yes," Sergion confirmed. "When Eärnil was made king, he rewarded those who had served him well and granted the estates and title to Alagaron. But the family lost everything when Osgiliath and the surrounding area was finally overrun in 2475."
"That's interesting," Imrahil mused, "because even though it's obvious from his account in the book that Alagaron played a prominent part in the ambush at Poros, leading the diversionary force, he has not overblown his consequence."
"But a commander always knows who has made a significant contribution."
Imrahil smiled. "Just so. And during the few words Lady Aearin deigned to speak to me she hinted that there was something surprising to come. Now that intrigues me."
Settling down to read later, Imrahil found that surprising had been an understatement. "Listen to this, Sergion. There was obviously more to Captain Alagaron than I picked up from the early part of the book.
The Haradrim fled before our anger, leaving baggage, animals and their wounded to the mercy of our victorious troops. My men were tireless, determined to drive the enemy from Gondor's soil, and we hastened after the defeated army, catching up with the rearguard just north of the river crossing. True men all of us, but that day we showed no quarter, wanting the tale of Gondor's fury to be carried back to the tented cities, a warning to the Princes of Harad to cleave only to their own land.
We reached a wooded rise that led down to the Poros. As I emerged from the trees, I saw a group of red-clad warriors clustering around a white pony. Desperately they urged their charge towards the crossing, and suspecting they were protecting a favoured leader, I called good men around me and sped to intercept them. Fiercely they fought us, but we were many and skilled. One by one they fell, until only a single defender stood, holding the bridle of a wild-eyed pony in one hand and a curved knife in the other. I raised my sword, but before I could strike, the rider screamed at me to hold. My sword arm dropped in my astonishment, for a woman's voice, commanding but melodious, had stayed my hand. 'Do not hurt her!' she cried out in the common tongue. 'My servant only seeks to protect me and has no part in this war.'
'If war it is, lady,' said I, 'then it is not of Gondor's making.' Now I could see that I had been about to slice the throat of a woman. Lined and weathered of face she was, but although her hand shook she had not dropped the knife, ready to protect her mistress to the last.
'Tell your servant to put down her weapon,' I commanded the lady. 'And show yourself, you will take no harm here.' All I could see of the rider were her eyes. The colour of the finest emeralds, they bored into me, as if drawing out the truth of my words with their far seeing gaze. Slowly she pushed back the folds of her cloak, and I looked upon a dream. As I stared in wonder at her beauty, she spoke softly to her servant in their own tongue and the old woman lowered the knife.
'Catch one of their baggage animals,' I ordered my men, 'the servant will not keep up with us if she has to walk.'
'You are taking us? You said we would come to no harm!' the lady cried.
'Nor will you,' said I. 'But neither will you return to your land, for I have looked upon a dream and I will not lose it now.'"
Imrahil closed the book, for that was the last entry. "Quite the romantic, our Captain Alagaron."
"Hmm… surprising indeed." Sergion chuckled. "I wonder what happened, and whether the lady went willingly. But also who she was and why she was there. She sounds an unlikely camp follower."
"I'll have to read the next book to find out. After Poros, Eärnil straightaway led his force north to rout the Wainriders, so I doubt there was much time for wooing. If that's what Alagaron intended."
Imrahil read until his eyes stung: the tale of the march to Ithilien proved fascinating, enriched as it was by Alagaron's frank account of his obsession with his captured lady. Sometime in the night he once again changed his mind, determined to try and initiate a meeting with Lady Aearin for no other reason, he told himself, than to add her family knowledge to the story.
His opportunity came sooner than anticipated. The next morning, coming out of the bootmakers on the third level, he spotted a slim, grey-clad woman gliding though the crowd. Imrahil lengthened his stride and followed, keeping his eye on the tail of black hair that had been wound into a loose knot on the back of her head. He dodged housewives who bartered at the market stalls, took a shortcut behind a fish seller, and caught her arm just as she turned to take one of stairways that snaked up to the higher circles.
"Lady Aearin, a moment of your time."
"Oh!" she swung to face him, alarmed by his restraining hand. But her anxious start quickly changed to a frown of irritation when she recognised her captor. "Prince Imrahil, you made me jump. I was not expecting someone to make a grab for me."
"No." Imrahil didn't apologise, but kept a light hold on her arm – swiftly deciding that the sensible approach could often turn out to be boring. On this fine morning she wore a sleeveless surcoat over her plain dress and he could feel both the warmth of her flesh and the cold stiffness of her body through the woollen material. Equally amused and annoyed by the look of distaste she threw at him, he bit back a wry remark and said quietly. "I would like to talk to you." At the same time he jerked his head towards a hostelry that had tables outside, ready to refresh citizens toiling up the thigh-burning roads of the City. Two ladies sat at one sipping cordial, so he thought it a respectable enough place. "Come, we can take some refreshment, and you can tell me more about your surprising ancestor."
"I do not want a drink." Glaring at him with smouldering eyes, she resisted the pressure of his hand, and tried to shrug it off without attracting unwanted attention.
"Then just sit and talk." Imrahil steered her towards the nearest table. He knew he was behaving boorishly, but, damn it, she had been cold to him right from the start and he had done nothing to warrant it. Whatever he did now was unlikely to worsen his standing.
"I know you are used to having your orders obeyed, my lord. However, I am not one of your vassals." She hissed the words under her breath, and snatched her arm from his grasp as he pulled out a chair for her. But since he had blocked her escape with his body, and probably not wanting to make a scene with so many people around, she sat down with no more persuasion.
Imrahil took a place opposite, put his elbows on the table and leant towards her, locking his amused eyes with her angry ones. "Tell me, do you dislike princes in general, or is it just this particular prince that raises your hackles?"
"As far as I know, lord," she snapped back immediately, "you are the only prince I am likely to come across."
"In that case, what have I done to upset you?" He grinned, finding the situation extraordinarily funny. "Besides forcing you to sit here with me, I mean."
She stared at him for a moment, and he thought he detected a lessening of the animosity in her expression. A deep sigh showed that at least she was reconciled to staying put for the moment. "Let us just say that my experiences have given me no great respect for the high and mighty."
"Have I acted high and mighty?" he complained, and then laughed. "Besides…
"Forcing me to sit here with you," she finished for him, her lips twitching slightly.
"Look," he said, encouraged, "why don't we call a truce for a short while. You can pretend you actually like princes, we can have an interesting conversation and then you can go back to loathing me."
"I don't loathe you," she shot back quickly.
"Well, that's reassuring."
This time she laughed, her eyes lighting with the green glints he had spotted before. Imrahil felt he had worked a marvel. He signalled to the server. "I am going to have some ale, will you not have something to drink yourself."
"Oh, very well." Looking resigned, she put her small bag down on the table. "I'll have some spelt water."
Imrahil pulled a face, wondering how anyone could drink the insipid stuff.
"It's refreshing," she countered, accurately reading his expression.
"If you say so." She looked so lovely when she relaxed. It would be good if he could thaw her a bit, if nothing else. Pulling his gaze away he gave the order to the server.
"I am really enjoying the books," Imrahil said when the man went off to get their drinks. "And you were right: the end of the first one was unexpected. I started the second and have got as far as your ancestor Alagaron leaving his lady to wait for him when Eärnil's forces attacked the Wainriders' camp. I just couldn't read any more last night, but something tells me she was still there when he got back. Although it's not obvious why she was with the Haradrim forces in the first place. I thought you might be able to enlighten me."
"Oh!" Her eyes drew together slightly as if he'd said something totally unexpected. "I thought you would want to know why Alagaron made an immediate decision to take Sawda with him on a fast march north, in spite of the difficulties of keeping her safe and making sure she could keep up."
"No," Imrahil said. "There's no mystery in that. It's obvious he fell for her with such a force that it quite stunned him. Once that had happened, he couldn't have left her unprotected, as she would have been in danger from corrupt mercenaries in both armies."
"Hm…," Aearin considered that, and lost in thought for a moment she tilted her head to one side, unconsciously twirling an escaped curl around her finger whilst biting the inside of her lip.
She looked quite captivating and he was sure she was completely unaware of it. Imrahil leant back putting space between them as a hot surge of desire shot through him. Annoying, when she so obviously felt nothing for him. "You think it strange that he lost his heart so quickly."
Now why should she find that odd? "No. A similar thing happened to my older sister and her husband. They took one look at each other and both knew, although on the surface one would think them totally unsuited, as their characters are very dissimilar."
Her eyes opened wide. "Your sister was allowed to marry for love?"
Imrahil laughed, pleased to be able to astound her. "Well, he came from a good family so my father gave in pretty quickly. Ivriniel is a very determined lady."
Aearin's brows drew together again, making little frown lines appear above her nose, which he found enchanting. The drinks arrived at that moment and Imrahil fished out some coins, deciding that he'd better get back to the original safe subject. "So, do you know why Sawda was with the Haradrim in the first place, and under considerable protection? Alagaron doesn't really say."
Aearin sighed. "All the papers and letters were destroyed when my family lost its estates. They left it too late, thinking they were strong enough to repel any raiders. The books were only saved because they were in Minas Tirith at the time. There are no other written records, but according to what has been passed down, Sawda was the youngest daughter of one of the Princes of Harad."
"That might explain her escort, but it still doesn't account for her presence," Imrahil mused.
"She was a seer," Aearin sipped at her drink, her eyes on him waiting for his reaction.
"Evidently it was common to ascribe such powers to royal daughters as long as they were untouched. The Haradrim liked to have a seer with them to decree on the auspicious days for attack and to warn them of unexpected dangers."
"She didn't earn her pay then," Imrahil chipped in with a grin. "The Haradrim were totally out manoeuvred by Eärnil and your Captain Alagaron."
Aearin opened her mouth to say something, but snapped it shut before the words left her lips.
"Yes? You were going to say…," he prompted.
She fought with indecision for a moment, and then let out a giggle of pure amusement."Perhaps she cheated, and was not a maiden at all."
"Well, I bet she certainly wasn't for long after she met your captain."Imrahil risked, glad she had a sense of humour.
Aearin put the mug back down on the table and leant on her arms, a quiver of a smile on her lips. He grinned back, enjoying the moment. "Alagaron did marry her, didn't he?"
"Yes, he did," she confirmed. "But in spite of that, and her failure at Poros, Sawda was reputed to be fey. In fact, it's family history that emerald eyes appear in the women every so often and those that have them enjoy the gift of sight. My great-aunt was the last, and although I never met her, she was said to be gifted."
"So, you have a Harad princess as an ancestor." Imrahil smiled. "It's a lovely story and I am enjoying the books, but they must be quite valuable and really should be kept somewhere safe."
Her face saddened. "So Captain Thorongil said, and I will put them in the library when you have finished reading." She paused for a moment, hesitating to disclose her feelings, he thought. "I know it's silly, but I have so little family left that the books are precious to me and I have been loath to part with them."
"I am sorry," Imrahil said, realising that he had given little thought to the fact she must be grieving. Would that explain her initial coldness to him? "I heard that you lost your father recently and your brother before that. But are there no other relatives? Surely it is not necessary for you to be a paid companion."
"One pays a heavy price for loyalty to Gondor, my lord. All my father's family were soldiers, and many did not marry."
He could understand that, and it was true that many warriors shunned family life. It must be very hard for her. "Your mother, she had no relatives?"
"My mother died of the fever. She was an only child, the daughter of a scholar who could trace his ancestry back to the first ships bringing the Faithful. But he married late, as many before him, seemingly more interested in our illustrious past than providing for a golden future. I do have some cousins who live in Lossarnach, and I have stayed with them from time to time. But I prefer to order my own life, and although I enjoy the beauty of the countryside, I confess to finding life there a bit dull. The City may be made of stone, but it is a vibrant, cultured stone."
Just when he was about to ask whether the marriage between a lady of high Numenorean decent and a professional soldier had been a love match, the clanging of the noon bell caused Aearin to jump to her feet.
"I must go; I have to walk home with Mirineth when she comes out from her music lesson." She picked up her bag. "Thank you for the drink." Before he could stop her, she pushed the chair back and walked quickly away, turning up the nearby steps.
So, Imrahil smiled to himself, he had managed to prise open a chink in the lady's armour! Perhaps all was not lost.
It was this realisation that made him susceptible later that afternoon to Denethor's suggestion that he join him in a reconnoitring trip to Osgiliath in a few days' time. It meant he would be around for the weekly feast and dancing held in Merethrond, and he knew from his conversation with Mirineth that she and Aearin always attended. To Sergion he said it would be good for them to see Gondor's front line defences at first hand. His friend, unaware of the morning meeting with Aearin, accepted the plan with his usual equanimity.
The next morning started very differently than the one before – Imrahil immersed himself in purely male company. Feeling he couldn't neglect the escort his father had provided, he organised for them all to go out at dawn for an early ride to enjoy the sun rising over the Ephel Dúath. Riding for pleasure was something few did in the City, the only horses, besides those used for hauling goods, belonging to the errand riders or a few favoured captains. But the knights of Dol Amroth thought much of their horses, treating them as friends and companions as well as aids to battle.
Thus, after their mounts had been restored to their comfortable stables and snaffled up their ration of oats, a happy group of men sat down to a late breakfast at the long table in the Dol Amroth town house. Esquires ran to and from the kitchens bearing great platters of food, and the steward, knowing how thirsty men could get after a fast ride, left tall jugs of ale on the side table. As always, Niram had provided a meal of gargantuan proportions and exquisite flavour. Imrahil thought her bread had the softest insides and the crispest crust of any he had ever tasted, surpassing even the bakers at home. And the ham, roasted in a glaze of honey and wine, was good enough to start a war. Luckily there was plenty of it, or it might come to that. Imrahil wiped a piece of bread around the last smearing of baked egg on his plate, loaded it with a slice of ham, put it in his mouth, and sat back. He could force no more down.
"Do you want any more ale, lord?" Halmir, his esquire, asked.
Imrahil shook his head; he hadn't an inch of space to spare. Just as he took a deep, satisfied breath, hands resting on his stomach, the door opened and the steward, Falason, entered, looking across to get his attention.
"See what Master Falason wants, will you, Halmir."
Halmir hurried across, but after a few short words with the steward was back. The boy dropped his head and spoke close to Imrahil's ear. "Lord, there's a lady called to see you?"
Halmir nodded. "Falason says she's definitely a lady. She's waiting downstairs."
Imrahil shrugged. No point speculating, he might just as well go and see. Throwing his napkin down on the table, he pushed back his chair and went to the door. Still entrenched in ham and ale, nobody made any comment.
"Who is it?" he asked Falason, after he'd closed the door on the gathering.
As all good stewards, Falason's face remained impassive. "She gave her name as Lady Aearin, lord. But she won't say what she wants and insists on speaking only to you. If I hadn't taken her for a lady, I would have sent her about her business."
Aearin? This could be interesting. "No, you did right, Falason. Thank you. I'll go and talk to her."
Obviously in some distress, she was anxiously pacing the floor at the bottom of the stairs, but stopped and looked up immediately she heard him coming down. Two spots of colour stained her cheeks, and her grey eyes blazed with anger, the green glints flashing brightly.
He stopped a couple of treads from the bottom, arrested by the rage in her face. "Lady Aearin, whatever's the matter. How can I help you?"
"It's Mirineth," she snapped in a voice that could have cut steel. "She's run away. Back to Linhir if I have deduced correctly."
"Oh, I see." No wonder she was upset, but why was she coming to tell him. Where was Mirineth's father?
"You have to go after her straightaway," she carried on, gaining volume. "Bring her back before anyone finds out. Her reputation will be ruined otherwise."
"Me?" Had he missed something? "Why do I have to bring her back?"
"Why?" Her brows flew up, her hands clenching in fury. "Why do you think! It's your fault!"
To be continued
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.