12. Chapter 12
"My fault! How do you make that out?" Advancing down the last few stairs, Imrahil glared back, incensed by the resumption of her hostility towards him.
Aearin didn't retreat a step; lifting her chin she looked up into his face with eyes full of accusation. "Surely you saw how anxious Mirineth was. You, her father and Lord Ecthelion have, between you, turned that sweet girl into a jittering wreck."
"Now just a minute! I have done no such thing…"
"Her father was on about it last night, but she has no wish to be a great lady," Aearin interrupted before he could finish. "And you, Prince Imrahil, should take your title and your grand palace elsewhere."
How dare she! If she'd been a man… But she wasn't – her shapely bosom heaved quite effectively to show as much. Pulling his eyes away, Imrahil made an effort to control his fury. "I don't need to explain myself to you," he hissed through his teeth, "but for the sake of peace let me tell you that I never had the slightest intention of offering Lady Mirineth anything. I have made that plain to Ecthelion. If he did not pass it on, then I am sorry for it."Her brows drew together, and in spite of his anger he noticed those cute little frown lines. Infernal woman! She had totally unsettled him, and he didn't like it one bit.
Aearin opened her mouth to say something and closed it again. A heartbeat later she got her thoughts enough in order to voice them. "What do you mean? Lord Ecthelion particularly wanted me to take the position for that very reason. He thought Mirineth might need some help in how to go on in the City." She scowled at him. "And now you say you had no intention."
"I cannot make it any clearer," Imrahil said, taking a calming breath. "I will not be making any offer for Lady Mirineth's hand, whatever you have been told. Perhaps I should have advised the lady herself, but forgive me, I would have considered that rude."
Disbelieving, she rounded on him. "You don't want to marry her, in spite of Lord Ecthelion's wishes and Glavror's wealth?"
Imrahil flared up again; he should throw her out, she obviously had a very low opinion of him and he needn't listen to it. "I am not interested in marriage at the moment, but if I was then I assure you I would be looking in an entirely different direction than Lady Mirineth, however beautiful or wealthy she might be." In fact he'd make sure he looked nowhere near Minas Tirith or Linhir!
That stopped her, but only for a moment. She soon hurled another accusation. "Then why did you call? It would have been better to have stayed away!"
"Too right! I could be on my way home at this moment!" Imrahil shot back. Indignation flashed across her face but she held his eyes, still waiting for his answer. He struggled to speak coolly. "I called because Captain Thorongil asked me to return the book to you." After a slight hesitation, innate honesty made him add. "I was going to pass the errand on, but the book intrigued me, so I thought I would deliver it in person. In fact," he fixed her with a hard stare, "one of the reasons to bring it myself was that I intended to offer to have your books copied, but meeting with such unfriendliness from you, I never quite found the opportunity."
Her face flushed red, and she dropped her eyes. Imrahil acknowledged that he probably should have offered on the morning he'd met her in the market, but at the time he'd thought it would give him another opening with her. What a fool to think that!
A moment later, Aearin sought his eyes again, this time with a plea on her lips and the fire gone. "I am sorry. I was under a misapprehension." She took a deep breath. "But would you please go after her."
"Why should I? It's none of my business." Imrahil folded his arms and leant back against the newel post. He felt no compunction about refusing; it would be better for his peace of mind if he never saw Mirineth or Aearin again.
A pulse throbbed in her throat and her eyes glistened. "But there's no one else I can ask who has horses. It's the only chance of catching her."
"But if she's going home what does it matter?" Imrahil replied with a shrug.
"It's all very well for you!" Aearin snapped, getting angry again. "You do not have to worry what people think. But she has not got generations of noble ancestors. One step out of line for someone like Mirineth and haughty shoulders will be turned against her. She doesn't deserve that."
"Well," Imrahil retorted, "tell her father, and get him to send after her." She did have a problem with his rank, but he pushed aside the idea of trying to find the reason. Why should he care?
"I can't. Lord Glavror has taken a boat to Cair Andros to visit his son, who's stationed there. He won't be back for a couple of days." She sighed, her shoulders slumping. "Look, I came because I thought you were going to offer for her and you wouldn't want her to be put in danger. She has gone with the two men that bring salted mutton and fish from the coast to the City. Most goes to the market, but Lord Glavror has a regular order. You have to catch her before tonight. Her maid says the driver, young Lainor, is besotted with her, which is why he agreed to it, I imagine. Lainor seems harmless, but whether they both can be trusted, I do not know. She is so trusting herself, but they will be a week on the road. And how she intends to get from Pelargir to Linhir, I have no idea."
The stupid girl! But it was nothing to do with him. Except perhaps that he should have made plain his intentions – or rather non-intentions – to Glavror when accepting his hospitality. Or better, not to have accepted it at all, which he wouldn't have done had he not set eyes on Lady Aearin. Imrahil sighed. "You are sure she is heading back to Pelargir on this cart?"
"I wheedled it out of her maid; she was in on the scheme. Mirineth rose early and took a bag."
"It seems a ridiculous thing to do. Why not just tell her father of her fears."
"I agree on the face of it. But you do not know how much she was pressured. Whatever you said to Lord Ecthelion, your feelings were not passed on."
Imrahil sucked in his breath. He should have known: the honourable Steward was used to getting his own way and probably meant to try again.
Aearin acknowledged his response with a lift of her brows. "And also I have a suspicion there is something Mirineth has not told me – some reason she really wants to go home. I have not been with her that long, and she knows Lord Ecthelion was responsible for my appointment, so she does not confide everything."
Not such a little sap-skull as one might think. Imrahil frowned. "But surely she knows Glavror will fetch her back, he seemed bent on keeping her here."
"From what I can gather," Aearin said, shrugging her shoulders, "she thinks her grandmother will shield her from her father's wrath. But please, none of that matters, she is so young and innocent, anything could happen to her on the journey."
Imrahil considered for a moment. It would take him little of his time, he should be able to catch a cart with only a few hours start easily. And just maybe Aearin would look on him with some favour. Although why he still wanted that after the insults she had hurled at him he couldn't fathom – probably because he hated giving up. His damn pride again!
Aearin was watching him intently, all hostility gone from her eyes; they now only held mute appeal. He put his hand out and brushed an escaped curl back from her cheek. "I must be mad."
Apart from the look of surprise, and a quick lowering of her eyes, he saw no more of her reaction because he immediately swung around and called up the stairs for Falason. "Ask Lord Sergion and…Lord Baranor to come down, would you, Falason," he requested when the steward appeared. "And send Halmir with a message to the stables. I want Blade and Lord Sergion's horse saddled immediately."
Not ideal going back out, but the horses had not been worked hard over the previous weeks when they had been in Umbar, and they'd take it easy on the return. He turned back to Aearin. "I think you need to follow on in a wain, I can hardly bring Mirineth back to the City on my horse if you want to keep this a secret."
"Thank you. I thought I could trust you when you tried to keep Lady Oriel's name from being bandied about."
Well, that was something! He thought for a moment. "Can you trust her maid as well?"
Aearin nodded. "She's devoted to Mirineth."
"Then two women will leave the city … two will come back, the maid will have to hide on the return. But you need to tell me how I will recognise the cart, in case Mirineth is concealing herself."
"By the smell, I imagine," Aearin said, wrinkling her nose. "All the empty fish barrels go back. They wash them out, but they still reek. Oh… and it's pulled by two brown and white horses."
"You mean Skewbalds?"
"I have no idea, they just have brown patches."
Imrahil smiled to himself, looking up as he heard footsteps on the stairs. Sergion and Baranor were coming down. He introduced Baranor to Aearin, making no apologies to himself for choosing an older married man to go with her.
He got some pleasure from the situation by seeing Baranor's reaction to being asked to hire a wain, and take Lady Aearin and a maid out on the South Road. But Imrahil didn't explain much — there wasn't time – and Aearin could do that on the way. He wanted to get going, and stopped only long enough to tell the men he had to go out, obtain his cloak and send Falason to open the strongbox. Baranor would need some coin.
"Get away as quick as you can, Baranor, and keep it to yourself," he said, handing him a purse. "Sergion and I will probably be out of the City before you. We'll meet you on our way back."
The astonished knight stared at him for a moment, but when Imrahil did nothing except grin slightly, he bowed. "Very well, lord."
Baranor took Lady Aearin's arm, but she turned and gave Imrahil a lovely smile. "Thank you, my lord. I am very grateful."
Imrahil smiled back. Well, perhaps it would be worth the effort!
On their way to the stables, Sergion listened to the justifications of Imrahil's decision to get involved with nothing more than an amused glint in his eyes, waiting until he had come to a stop before responding. They had reached the door to the stables and Sergion pulled it open, letting out the warm smell of horses, hay and leather.
"You're saying Mirineth begged a lift in a cart full of stinking barrels?"
"So it seems." Imrahil confirmed.
Sergion started laughing. "Must be pretty desperate to get away from you."
"Oh, go to Mordor!" Chuckling, Imrahil thumped him on the arm. "You can't say you won't enjoy the ride."
"No, but I also say you're mighty keen to impress a certain lady."
Imrahil flashed him a scornful look. "I'd do it for anyone."
Every trader that visited the city must have chosen that very day to head home. Wains pulled by oxen, or great feathered-legged horses and carts with no more than a small pony in the shafts were strung out along the length of the South Road. Where they could, Imrahil and Sergion galloped along the grassy sward that bordered the beaten way and only went back to the road when they encountered grazing cattle and sheep. The day warmed, and a league out Imrahil wished he had not eaten quite so much for breakfast, or drunk so much ale.
They drew many stares: from men working in the fields and from the occupants of the carts they passed. The quality of their horses and the richness of their raiment attracted attention – only errand riders usually rode fast in pairs. Imrahil blessed the chance that he wore no devices which would give away his identity; if he had, it would be difficult to get Mirineth back to the City without invoking comment. And he hoped that Baranor and Aearin had got away quickly, and that the lure of good payment had persuaded a carter to hire out his outfit with no quibbling.
"I reckon we'll catch our quarry around noon." Sergion broke in on his thoughts.
Imrahil agreed. He had worked out the timings, knowing the carters usually took an hour or two over their midday meal to allow the animals pulling the wagon a chance to step out of their traces. If they kept up a good pace without pushing their mounts, they would probably come upon Mirineth and young Lainor resting. Farther from the City the traffic thinned, many wains having taken the turning for Lossarnach. And already some travelling further on had stopped, their drivers sitting with backs against the wheels munching on bread and cheese, whilst heavy horses cropped the grass. But no skewbalds, or any reeking fish -barrels.
"They must have got away early," Imrahil mused.
"Probably anxious to put as many leagues as possible between them and the City," Sergion offered.
"Yes, but they will have to rest soon." Imrahil scanned ahead, but could see nothing, as the road disappeared into a stand of scrubby trees. "I wonder. I seem to remember the road dips in those trees, where a stream comes down from the hills."
"Yes." Sergion followed his eyes. "You can see the line of lush vegetation where it winds through the meadows. It would be a sensible place to stop, which they must do soon."
"As long as we're not on a wild goose chase," Imrahil muttered.
They slowed when they reached the trees. Which was a good job, as they might have missed their prey otherwise: the cart had been hauled up a rough track that bordered the stream. But a glimpse of a brown and white rump through the foliage gave the game away. "I wonder who they thought might be following," Imrahil murmured.
"No one probably," Sergion replied. "But I rather imagine Mirineth wouldn't want to draw too much notice. Just in case they met someone on the road likely to recognise her."
Imrahil grinned. "She's in for a surprise, don't you think."
Sergion raised his eyebrows, silently laughing, as together they urged their horses up the track. The hooves made little sound on the dried mud and dead leaves, but one of the skewbalds gave them away, letting out a loud whinny when he caught wind of his distant kin approaching.
Immediately a figure emerged from the trees. It was a young man, and he eyed them belligerently. Stocky, clean shaven with black hair, he wore a leather jerkin and patched breeches. Not intimidated by the approach of two warriors, he thrust his chin up and weighed the cudgel he held with determined menace. Imrahil choked back a laugh, wondering what the lad would do if he and Sergion really meant to threaten him. He certainly didn't lack for courage.
"Keep away," the boy bellowed at them. "I've nothing but empty barrels."
"There's no need for that," Imrahil said, giving the lad a smile. "Lainor, isn't it?"
Lainor's eyes narrowed and he reluctantly nodded. "Well," Imrahil carried on, "It's Lady Mirineth we want, not your empty barrels."
"She isn't here!" Lainor lifted the cudgel threateningly.
"Don't be a fool," Imrahil snapped. "My knife would be in your throat before you could take a step."
"No!" Mirineth suddenly appeared through the trees, stopping dead when she realised just who the visitors were. "Prince Imrahil?" she mouthed in shock.
"Ah, I see she is here." Imrahil slanted a wry glance towards Lainor.
The lad's face flushed. Imrahil turned his attention to Mirineth. "Good day, my lady. I trust you have had a pleasant morning. But I am afraid we are here to take you back to the City."
Lainor pushed out his chest, not giving Mirineth time to answer. "She don't want t' go."
"Maybe not," Imrahil agreed. "But you must see she can't travel with you for days on end..."
Lainor glared at him. "She'll come to no harm with me..."
"Of course I won't ..." Mirineth moved to stand next to Lainor. She faced Imrahil defiantly, only her red face and her nervously twitching fingers betraying her anxiety. "I don't know what you're doing here, lord, but I told my father I couldn't marry you. He didn't believe me when I said I'd run back to Nethon. But that's what I'm doing, even if it means I can never come to the City again."
Ah! So Aearin was right: there was something more to this. "Who's Nethon?"Imrahil asked her, intrigued.
She dropped her eyes. "The man I am going to marry."
"Oh, I see." Imrahil's lips twitched, she looked like a naughty child caught out in some misdemeanour. "Mirineth, I think there has been some confusion. Without wishing to be insulting I must tell you that I never had any intention of making you an offer..."
"What!" Her eyes shot back to meet his, and her face blanched.
"It was an idea cooked up between Lord Ecthelion and your father, with a small contribution from mine," Imrahil explained. "I have informed Lord Ecthelion of my feelings, as I have my father. And I apologise for not directly telling yours. Had I done so, it would have avoided the need for you to run away."
"Then why are you here?" she demanded, flushing again.
"Lady Aearin begged me to bring you back. You must know that running away is very foolish, anything could happen to you."
"Not with me around, it wouldn't." Lainor took a step forward.
Imrahil ignored him. He'd realised from the start that there was no harm in the boy – for the moment. But who could tell after he'd been with such a desirable woman for more than a few days. And he still hadn't set eyes on the other lad. He smiled reassuringly at Mirineth. "I have promised Lady Aearin I will take you back to the City. We'll meet up with her on the way. If you go back now, no one will know anything about this. And I will make it plain to your father that whatever Lord Ecthelion thinks, I will not be requesting your hand."
This comforting speech didn't have the desired effect as large tears started rolling down her cheeks. "He still won't let me marry Nethon," she sniffed. "He's bound to find someone he considers more worthy of me. I can't convince him that I don't want a high position, I only want Nethon." She started sobbing in earnest, leaning against Lainor's shoulder.
With a weary sigh, Imrahil swung his leg over Blade's back and jumped lightly to the ground. He felt hot and sticky in the heavy tunic he had chosen to wear for the ride at dawn, and his patience was wearing thin. Barely an hour past midday and already he had faced an angry woman hurling insults at him, been threatened by a yokel with a cudgel and now he had to contend with a beauty in distress. War was simpler.
Lainor stood rigid, an expression of acute embarrassment on his face. The cudgel still in one hand, he hesitated to actually touch Mirineth with the other. Imrahil had no such compunction; his dealings with Findulais over the years had taught him to cope with tearful women. He handed the reins to Sergion, encountering an amused but sympathetic look.
Imrahil took hold of her shoulders and eased her away from Lainor. Not brave now! The poor boy looked scared to death at having the woman of his dreams clinging to him. He spoke sympathetically, quashing the desire to tell her to shut up. "Running away won't convince your father to take you seriously, Mirineth." All that did was to make her sob more and bury her head into his tunic. Patting her back he fumbled for his handkerchief, thankfully managing to produce a pristine piece of white linen, which he handed to her.
"Here, wipe your eyes."
After a few moments the sobs eased. Mirineth gulped and blew her nose delicately and then sniffed. "He'll never let me marry him."
Imrahil gave her a squeeze. She was one of the few women who still looked wonderful with red eyes. Pity she didn't stir his heart, or perhaps a good job if she was set on someone else. "Is your Nethon so ineligible?"
Mirineth shook her head, still trying to stop the tears. "No, his father's a lord, although Nethon has two older brothers. But," she looked up to Imrahil's face imploringly, "now Lord Ecthelion has put the idea of you into father's head, he has become much more ambitious. He won't entertain the idea of me marrying Nethon at all. But if I disgrace myself, he'll be glad to see me married. That's why I must go to Pelargir."
Imrahil could understand why Glavror, with his wealth and connections, wished for someone other than younger son for his daughter. But in the end happiness came above social standing. Not that he could help her. There was no way he should encourage her to disobey her father. And Pelargir was not a place for an unaccompanied lady to go.
"Why Pelargir, does Nethon live there?" he asked when she finally got control of herself.
"No! But he has a ship that he runs from Linhir to Pelargir. He's doing really well. You would think my father would admire him for his enterprise."
"I see. But if you went there, do you know if he would be in port?"
"No," Mirineth answered, "I would wait there until he came."
Imrahil glanced at Sergion; they shared a look of disbelief. "I am sorry, Mirineth," Imrahil said and put a consoling arm around her. "I do have sympathy for you, but there is no way I can let you go on. Besides the impropriety of you travelling with two men" – he had spotted the other lurking in the trees – "you cannot stay on your own in Pelargir. It's a port visited by all the raff and scum of Gondor, you would not be safe."
"She could stay with my mother," Lainor interjected hotly.
Imrahil shook his head, scowling at him. "And what would Nethon think about you hanging around in Pelargir for days, Mirineth?"
The shot went home, he could tell, although she said nothing. He followed it up quickly. "I have to take you back. I am afraid that the alternative is for me to return to the City and, in your father's absence, inform Lord Ecthelion. He will send a guard to fetch you. It's much better if this is kept between us."
Mirineth hung her head, and Imrahil knew she had capitulated. He felt so sorry for her and gave her another squeeze. "I can only suggest that you stand up to your father, but behave with dignity and composure. Show him you are not a child to be bullied and that you know your own mind. He loves you and will not want you to be unhappy."
She smiled wanly. "I sometimes think he's forgotten he loves me."
"Come on," Imrahil patted her on the back, "get your things. You'll have to ride with me until we meet up with Lady Aearin."
The preparations for them to leave went on accompanied by sullen looks from Lainor, Imrahil having favoured him with a few words about the iniquity of aiding Mirineth to fly from her home. But all in all he couldn't come down too hard on the lad. He imagined Mirineth had been quite persuading.
But it was a very subdued Mirineth Imrahil lifted onto his horse. She had put on a cloak, edged lavishly with colourful braid, which she wrapped around herself like a shield. Imrahil had no choice but to hang onto her, as she had no experience of being on a horse. Her body was warm against him, her lovely hair blew in his face and in spite of travelling with the fish barrels she smelt of some sweet flower. He smiled inwardly, in fact he laughed at himself: he had one lovely woman in his arms who didn't want to be there, and he was about to meet up with another who held him contempt. Yes, war was definitely simpler.
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.