14. Chapter 14
Nothing had really changed – the flag of the Stewards still fluttered high above the Tower of Ecthelion– the afternoon haze hung over the ramparts and the smell of the cooking wafted towards the returning group of men as the citizens prepared for the end of another day.
But as he approached the White City, Imrahil knew that within himself he felt differently. For one thing, the past week had given him a greater insight into the fear and consternation felt by Ecthelion at being so close to the creeping terror, but it had also resulted in a greater respect for his son. Denethor had impressed him: as a warrior and an intelligent strategist. Even though he still found him cold, for the first time Imrahil harboured no qualms about Denethor replacing his father.
The other feeling was more difficult to quantify and he would have liked to have dismissed it entirely, but over the past two weeks, at the end of each busy day spent visiting the outposts or discussing the defence of the river crossings, he had found it difficult to rest. As soon as he lay down, a soft, cultured voice intruded into his thoughts, and when he closed his eyes he glimpsed laughter filled lips or felt the brush of tendrils of silky hair across his cheek. Only when fully awake did he remember the anger and disdain Aearin had shown him. And then, he told himself repeatedly, he might have deserved some censure, but surely she had overreacted. He had only wanted to kiss her, and she had not given him time to explain... That was when the thought process hit a rocky path, because, deep within, he suspected he wanted much more. But did that mean he wanted to marry her? Hastily he pushed the thought away. As he had told his father repeatedly, he was too young for marrying. Or was he? Imrahil ground his teeth. Damn the woman for getting under his skin this way!
"How long do you intend staying?" Sergion broke into his deliberations.
Imrahil shrugged. "It depends; there is no rush to get back." Although he was being a fool and might as well go straight home and avoid any more heartache. "I'll spend some time with Finduilas before we leave."
They clattered through the gate, acknowledging the salute of the sentries. Denethor's bay sidled impatiently as his master stopped to talk to a captain, the horse fretting at the delay in reaching his comfortable stable and well-stocked manger. Riding on ahead, Imrahil and Sergion started across the open space beyond the gates and immediately got caught up in a throng of farmers returning with empty carts to their holdings on the Pelennor. Imrahil soothed Blade, the young horse shying slightly as one noisy cart rumbled right in front of him.
"You've something on your mind?" Imrahil asked when things had quietened again. He'd seen a furrow across Sergion's brow at the talk of going home.
Sergion eased his horse closer. "I am wondering if you would mind if I rode home instead of taking the ship with you. I would like to call in at Linhir and find out how Lady Oriel is getting on."
Ah, that didn't surprise him, Sergion having mused on her troubles a few times these past weeks. Imrahil thought for a moment. "We could stop the ship there anyway," he suggested.
"Yes, but I wouldn't want to delay you, and I might need more than a few hours. Also, she was unsure if she would be living with her brother, so she may be along the coast from Linhir."
"Then we will ride," Imrahil decided, pushing down his own preference for a sea voyage which might clear the clouds from his mind – they were sure to still be there if Aearin refused to see him. "You can stay as long as you wish."
"You'll come with me?" Sergion looked surprised.
Imrahil laughed. "Of course, you may need some help."
"Help?" Sergion raised his brows in wry amusement. "From the state of your temper lately I have concluded that it's you that needs the help. Romance not going well?"
And he'd thought he had kept his feelings hidden. "I've given up on women." Imrahil answered with a laugh. It sounded unconvincing even to himself and Sergion's lips twitched.
"All women, or just one particular woman?"
"I..." Imrahil snapped his mouth shut. He didn't want to discuss it, and Sergion, after a short pause, changed the conversation to how many of them would ride home and who would travel back by ship. They decided that as they would find accommodation at various inns on the way rather than camp it would be foolish to take too many, and settled on four knights with their squires, which made a party of twelve. Safe, but not too unwieldy.
By the time they had finalised the rest of the arrangements to their satisfaction, Imrahil realised they were approaching the fifth level. Passing Glavor's house he was assailed by a great surge of regret for making such a mull of their last meeting. And by being away longer than intended, he had missed the dancing and so was unlikely to meet up with her unless he purposely sought her out. He could call, but risked finding the door slammed shut in his face. He sighed; she did look splendid when she was angry. Damn it! Why couldn't he put her out of his mind? Deliberately, he kicked Blade into a trot and hurried past the house, best to avoid even coming down here and so put temptation out of the way.
But the next morning, as he lounged with his sister in her garden, watching his young nephew pile stones into a heap, he couldn't resist asking. "Have you seen anything of Lady Mirineth?"
"Oh, of course, you won't have heard." Finduilas threw up her hands and giggled. "Mirineth has gone back to Linhir."
"She hasn't run away!" Imrahil protested in astonishment, wondering if he'd wasted his time.
"Run away?" Finduilas frowned. "No, she wouldn't do that; her grandmother came to collect her."
A lot his sister knew about it! "Her grandmother," he repeated. "Do you know why?"
Finduilas giggled again, and looked around as if to make sure no one was listening. "The whole court knows. Evidently you have never heard such a row; Lady Cuthwith wiped the floor with Glavror for upsetting Mirineth so much. She has a loud voice and a window was open. According to what I've heard, Glavror is no match for his mother. Also she seems to have inherited the Rohirric taste for plain speaking, and I heard her telling Ecthelion that she didn't expect her granddaughter to have to write to her for help and that he and Glavror could forget their plans because she was taking Mirineth home and if necessary would keep her there until she came of age."
"By thunder," Imrahil's voice quivered with laughter, "what did Ecthelion say to that?"
"He agreed. I don't think he dared to do anything else. Lady Cuthwith might be old, but she's still a big woman and you could see she would stand no nonsense. I think she might have been pretty in her youth," Finduilas mused. "I expect that's where Mirineth gets her looks from, if not her temperament."
Imrahil wasn't sure, Mirineth could be pretty strong willed when pushed. But that didn't interest him as much as something else. He kept his voice casual. "I suppose that means Lady Aearin is out of a job."
"Oh no," Finduilas exclaimed jumping up. "Boromir! You mustn't eat slugs!" She rushed over to him and snatched the little boy's hand away from his mouth. He grinned up at her, dirt oozing from between tightly closed pudgy fingers.
Finduilas prized open his hand and extracted half a slug, which she threw into the flower bed as though it had burnt her. "That's disgusting, Boromir! Now you'll have to go in and have your mouth washed out..."
Imrahil bit back a laugh. "Don't fuss, Finduilas," he told her affectionately, "I am sure we all did worse."
She caught hold of Boromir as he tried to squirm away, resigning herself to wiping his face with her handkerchief. "I never ate slugs!" she told her brother with her nose in the air.
"I bet Ivriniel did," Imrahil shot back with a laugh.
Finduilas glared at him in mock anger, and sat back down, keeping her eyes on Boromir who had resumed poking in the dirt. "No doubt, but she does a lot of things I don't."
That was true. Imrahil smiled at her. "You were going to tell me what has happened to Lady Aearin now. Is she going to take up another position?"
"Oh," Finduilas tried to wrench her attention from her young rascal, "Aearin's gone to Linhir with Mirineth. To keep her company."
Imrahil opened his mouth, but nothing came out for a moment. He took a breath and tried to look nonchalant. "Oh, really, then we might see them both. Sergion and I only decided yesterday that we would ride home by way of Linhir." That information put a different slant on the whole thing – the fates were playing their games again. A visit to Linhir meant it would only be polite to call on Mirineth, and surely if he saw Aearin again he would be able to sort out his feelings.
Three days later Imrahil again took the South Road away from Minas Tirith, this time not chasing a runaway, but perhaps chasing his heart. Without any hard pushing it should take three days to get to Pelargir, which meant two nights putting up wherever they could grab a bed in a village inn. Hopefully, with the promise of staying in a well-to-do hostelry when they reached the port.
Pelargir held its usual attraction for a group of young warriors, Imrahil having judiciously sent the older men home by ship, and back to their wives, keeping those he thought less likely to worry about what he was doing. Not that he and Sergion did more than partake of the ale, the ribald beauties of the port holding no appeal for those with their minds on other prey.
Sergion was unusually quiet, admitting, after Imrahil questioned him closely, that his feelings had grown for Oriel since parting from her. Although, so had his fears that she would shrink back from any show of a man's desire. Imrahil sympathised with him, but had nothing to offer other than the hope that memories would fade with the passage of time. But how much time?
Another two days to get to Linhir – they arrived when the sun was low in the sky, turning the rooftops of the houses a fiery red. A blacksmith was still working outside his forge, and with some pertinent questioning, he suggested that they could do no better than to lodge at The Grey Goose, set on the main way to the fords. The inn, when they reached it, looked prosperous and welcoming, spreading itself along the north side of the wide road. With the landlord bowing so low his nose was in danger of hitting his knees, Imrahil was able to bespeak enough rooms for his party and order a hearty supper.
"I am going to see if I can find out where Oriel lives," Sergion said when he had finished eating.
"Make some discreet enquiries," Imrahil suggested, knowing his friend would attract less attention than himself. "And ask about Glavror's place as well, will you?"
Sergion nodded, threw down his napkin and strode off to the common-room. Imrahil leant back with his goblet of wine and waited, mulling over what he would actually say to Aearin when he met her again. He came up with no real plan. In the end he decided to leave it to chance and try and think on his feet. He would have to apologise, that was for sure, but anything else would depend on her response. And what else did he want, anyway? Not long ago he had told his father that he was far too young to marry. So why was he even considering it? Luckily, for his peace of mind, Sergion came back at that moment, but one look at his face told Imrahil that all was not well.
"How I kept my temper I shall never know!" Sergion sat down heavily, a scowl on his face.
Imrahil topped up his friend's goblet. "What happened?"
"The mere mention of Lady Oriel produced a snigger from some. Not everybody, of course, but the one I asked was quick to tell me that she's barely seen in the town."
"But didn't she go to her grandmother's," Imrahil remarked.
Sergion shook his head. "The old lady died before Oriel came back."
"Oh, that would have been a blow. So she must be with her brother."
"Yes, he lives down river on the banks of the estuary. And I did find out that Glavror's house is that way too, but set back on a rise a little farther on."
"So, you are going to call in the morning?"
"Yes, what about you? Are you coming with me, or going to call on Lady Aearin?"
Imrahil considered. Having rescued Oriel, he was concerned for her welfare, but he didn't feel the pull that Sergion did. And if there was any chance for his friend, he didn't want that spoilt by some avaricious brother thinking he might snare a prince. There had been enough of that. "I would like to see her, but I think it would be better if you called on your own first. Register your interest, without me muddying the waters."
Sergion realised his reasoning immediately and pulled a resigned face. "Yes, perhaps that is best, but I am not at all confident I will be well received."
"Well," Imrahil chuckled, "If not, I will call with all pomp and ceremony."
They rode out together the next morning, no pomp and casually dressed, along the east bank of the estuary, where the rivers Gilrain and Serni poured fresh water into the salty inlet. At the moment it was low tide and dozens of men and boys were out filling baskets with the rich harvest of shell fish. Imrahil inhaled the familiar smell of salt, not as fresh here as in Dol Amroth, but welcome nevertheless.
The houses of the town followed the low banks, looking out across the water to the shore of Belfalas. It was obvious that here, away from the putrid air of the wharf-side, the more prosperous had built their houses. Imrahil left Sergion at the gates of a large dwelling surrounded by a thick wall made of shale and sand, so tall that only the upper windows of the house were visible. Imrahil rode on, looking for Glavror's house, as it had been described to him. It stood out easily, perched on a rise; its grounds sweeping down almost to the river. The whole place was protected by a similar wall as Oriel's house had been, but the height of the ground gave it a better view. Imrahil rode straight up to the gate which stood open, although a gatekeeper sat in a stone shelter whittling a piece of driftwood.
Imrahil realised that he had forgotten the name of Mirineth's grandmother, so had to ask for Mirineth instead. "Good morning, I've come to see Lady Mirineth."
The man looked him up and down, speculatively. "Have you now? Then you'd best go up to the house, lord."
Imrahil thanked him and rode on. Perhaps he should have found out the woman's name, but it was too late now.
A liveried porter opened the door to his knock and Imrahil gave his name, which caused a faint change in expression. "Is Lady Mirineth at home?" he inquired.
The servant stared at him for a moment and then opened the door wider. "Step this way, lord and I will tell Lady Cuthwith you have called."
His horse having been led away, Imrahil followed the porter into a large ante-room. The man went off along a side passage with a ponderous step. Imrahil waited impatiently, tapping his foot on the stone floor. From somewhere he could hear the sweet strains of a harp being played expertly, but nothing else. The porter was taking his time, and looking around Imrahil's attention was caught by a magnificent hanging which depicted the start of a battle. Mounted warriors swept across an open plain, blonde braids flying from under their helms. Imrahil realised that he was looking at a charge of the Rohirrim. A moment's consideration told him that it was probably Eorl the Young driving the enemy from the Field of Celebrant.
Hearing footsteps approaching, he turned round quickly. The porter bowed. "Lady Cuthwith will see you, lord. If you'll follow me."
The passage took him to what he deduced to be the south wing, and the porter opened the door onto a stone-flagged room with deep windows looking out over the estuary. Two grey lurchers raised their heads from the hearth rug, eyeing him unfavourably, and a woman rose from one of the padded window seats and bowed a greeting. "Prince Imrahil, I understand."
Lady Cuthwith would once have been a lovely-looking woman. The deep age lines on her face could not disguise the fine bone structure and her grey hair, which still grew thick, was long enough to be plaited into a heavy braid around her head. She stood tall, with no sign of a stoop, and Imrahil had no doubt she could claim kinship with the warriors he had seen portrayed on the hanging in the ante-room. She regarded him with a penetrating gaze from keen blue eyes.
"Forgive me for coming unannounced," Imrahil said, not at all sure of his welcome. "But we unexpectedly found ourselves returning to Dol Amroth by way of Linhir. I could not pass so near without calling on your granddaughter."
Her eyes narrowed. "I will tell you straight, my lord, as is my way, that I have been told by Mirineth that you have no wish to form a bond with her. However, if that is not right, and if you have come to further your suit, then you are not welcome here. I will not have her upset anymore."
"A friendly call only, my lady," Imrahil hastened to assure her. But the frown stayed on her face and he sighed, knowing he would have to be more direct. "In fact, if we are being honest, I would admit that it is really Lady Aearin I wish to see."
She fixed him with a steely look. "Then why didn't you say so straight away?"
His lips twitched. "Out of politeness, really."
She had the grace to smile slightly, and the stiffness left her body. "What is your business with Aearin, lord?"
Imrahil thought about saying he wanted to return the book, but decided that the truth, or at least the near truth, would be better. "Our last meeting ended in a misunderstanding. I wanted to put that right and hope she will think better of me."
Lady Cuthwith looked him up and down thoughtfully. "I see. It's like that, is it?"
Imrahil said nothing, but met her eyes boldly.
"Hmm... well, as you can no doubt hear, Mirineth is practising her harp in the solar. Aearin is in the garden reading, so you will find her alone. Go back out into the passage and take the studded door at the end."
Imrahil smiled his thanks and followed her directions, opening the outer door onto a peaceful, fragrant retreat.
He saw Aearin at once, sitting on a bench that had been placed in a niche in the wall. Her seat was half shaded by a large tamarisk tree so that her face was in shadow, but it was clear she had not noticed his approach. Imrahil walked quietly across the lawn to within a few feet of her and then stopped.
Detecting another presence, her head flew up. She jumped to her feet, laid her book down on the bench and took a step forward into the sunlight. "Prince Imrahil?"
Imrahil bowed. "Lady Aearin." Imrahil couldn't help his eyes lingering: her cheeks had flushed becomingly and her eyes held a militant sparkle. Seeing her again awaked his latent desire and he could only hope his thoughts were veiled to her.
Her chin went up under his scrutiny and she met his gaze with unwavering eyes. Imrahil had rarely encountered an eligible woman who met his frank regard in quite that way. Usually they simpered or made some witless remark. In that instant he knew with utmost certainty that this was the woman he wanted to make his wife. The realisation rendered him speechless, and his heart hammered in his chest.
Not aware of his life-altering moment, Aearin continued with her frosty look. "Why have you come here, my lord?"
He took a calming breath and tried to appear nonchalant but sincere. "I have come to apologise, my lady."
Her eyebrows lifted. "There was no need. I have given the matter no further thought."
He didn't believe her. The faint blush that coloured her cheeks had darkened, and her hands trembled slightly. He longed to put his arms around her and hold her close. Instead, he said, "Look, why don't we sit down and talk about it. We were getting on very well until my folly. Please blame my bad behaviour on that tankard of punch. I promise, I really did only mean that I wanted to kiss you."
Aearin stifled a gasp and her eyes widened. Imrahil continued quickly. "It was just that kind of night, and..." he spread his hands, searching for words to make her understand "... you are a lovely woman. Believe me, I did not mean any insult."
He thought he detected a softening of her expression as she considered his words. "No, I suppose you didn't," she said at last. A smile quivered on her lips. "And the tankard was very large."
Imrahil chuckled, feeling a bit easier. "Can we start again?"
She gave a long sigh, her shoulders drooping in quiet protest. "My lord, there is nothing to start. I appreciate your apology, but quite honestly I fail to see why you have come this far for something so unimportant."
"I would have sought you out in Minas Tirith, Aearin," Imrahil replied, keeping his voice light, "but Sergion wanted to call on Lady Oriel, and then I found out you were here." He hesitated, but tossing caution to the winds, carried on regardless. "To be honest, I would have come anyway. I didn't want our relationship to be soured by my foolishness."
Her eyes flashed. "There can be no relationship...." Aearin stopped mid sentence, focusing over his shoulder.
Imrahil spun around. Mirineth was tripping across the grass towards them, a silky-haired spaniel at her heels. "I saw you from the window, lord," she called out. "Whatever are you doing here?"
Damn it! Why couldn't she have stayed strumming on her blessed harp! Imrahil fixed a smile on his face. "I came to see you both." He moved towards her, took her hand in his and brought it to his lips, brushing a kiss across her knuckles. Something he had hesitated to do with Aearin. Mirineth smiled fondly at him. She looked as pretty as one of the flowers that graced the garden, and he felt guilty for his ire when she was so obviously pleased to see him. "How could I resist," he said winking at her, as he stooped to pat the dog the fawning dog.
She giggled mischievously. "You didn't make a special journey to see us, did you? I bet you are just on your way home."
"Well, yes," Imrahil admitted, laughing, "but we also wanted to call on Lady Oriel."
Mirineth's face dropped, and she opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment two servants came across the grass, one carrying a tray of refreshments and the other a chair. Mirineth sat down on the chair and Imrahil on the seat next to Aearin. His love didn't actually pull her skirts away from him, but the gap between them could have spanned the Great Sea.
The servants dispensed wine to him, and lemon cordial to the two ladies, bowed and left. Imrahil took a sip of his wine – light and fruity, just right for the daytime. "What were you going to say?" he asked Mirineth as soon as the servants were out of earshot.
She passed him a small almond cake. "It's just that I feel so sorry for Oriel. Everyone knows what happened and not all people are as sympathetic as they should be." She frowned and her voice rose in indignation. "As if any blame lies with her!"
"There are those that think a woman should die rather than be dishonoured," Aearin said, full of disgust.
"That's ridiculous," Imrahil snapped. "I hope no one says that in front of Sergion, he's liable to run his sword through them."
"Oh...!" both women looked at him expectantly, but Imrahil shook his head.
"That's for another time, I'll give away no secrets," he said smiling, and changed the subject. "Tell me, Mirineth, has your father relented in any way about your wish to marry...Nethon?"
She sighed a little desperately. "I am hoping he will. Grandmother has told him her views on the matter and Nethon is going to see him. He's taking his ship up to the Harlond to deliver a cargo of wool, so is going to call on my father in the City."
"Well, I wish him luck." Imrahil took another cake as Mirineth told him more about her sailor and her grandmother's efforts on her behalf. Gradually, as the talk ranged over other subjects, he felt Aearin relax, but however much he racked his brains he could think of no way to detach her from Mirineth, or how to see her alone in the future. He had no doubt that if he suggested calling again to pick up the books she would contrive to have them packed up and waiting for him.
With no immediate answer in sight, although there was no way he would give up, Imrahil rose to take his leave. "No, don't come with me," he said to Mirineth when she went to rise from her chair. "Sit here in the sun. I know my way."
"Someone will show you out," Mirineth said, taking his hand.
Imrahil bowed to her. "I shall take my leave of your grandmother. Good luck with the plans for your future, Mirineth."
He turned to Aearin. "Lady Aearin, if you pack up all the books over the next couple of days, I can take them home with me and have them copied."
"As you wish, lord." Aearin responded with a cool smile.
Great Ulmo! It was going to be like cracking ice. Imrahil strode back to the house, thinking hard. He would have given up there and then had he not thought that she was not quite as indifferent to him as she made out. Something told him that had she been completely disinterested, she would have been easier in his company, as Mirineth was.
"Prince Imrahil." Lady Cuthwith came to greet him as he returned to the cool of the passage. "I hope you didn't mind Mirineth interrupting you, but she was so pleased when she saw you in the garden." She smiled. "I apologise if I was rude when you first arrived."
"Not at all." He followed her back into the same room when she indicated him to do so. "I can only hope that she eventually finds happiness with Captain Nethon." He paused. "I know it is none of my business, but do you think your son will relent?"
"He's going to find it very uncomfortable if he doesn't," Lady Cuthwith answered with a grim smile. "I intend to keep Mirineth with me until he gives permission, or she comes of age. If I had not been away visiting my daughter, I would have intervened earlier and not let the situation build up into such a near calamity." She flashed him a grateful look. "I understand I have you to thank for making sure it was no worse."
Imrahil waved away her thanks. "I was glad to be of help. I would not wish anyone into a loveless marriage."
"Neither would I," Cuthwith agreed. "But Glavror married for position, whereas I married for love and was lucky enough to have parents who adored each other. My mother had to deal with all sorts of prejudice and opposition when she fell in love with a handsome Rohan soldier who came seeking his fortune in Gondor."
Imrahil laughed. "There is no doubt of your ancestry, Lady Cuthwith. The Rohirrim are famed for their forthrightness and plain speaking."
"So I understand." Her eyes twinkled. "In that case, tell me how your own pursuit is going? I am right, aren't I, you are serious about Lady Aearin?"
Imrahil dropped the corners of his mouth and sighed. "I am, but my pursuit, as you call it, is not going well at all. Although I have a slight hope she is not completely adverse to me."
"I certainly have had the impression there has been something bothering her," Lady Cuthwith mused. "Other than her recent bereavement, I mean."
"Trying to find some time alone with her is proving difficult, but I am working on it," Imrahil said with a wry grin.
"Ah ... now there I may be able to help you." Cuthwith glanced at the two lurchers curled on the mat. "Aearin takes my dogs for a walk every morning, down by the estuary. I am getting too old to go very far now and the servants only do it under duress. Mirineth is a late riser, but Aearin likes an early walk."
Imrahil smiled, and took Lady Cuthwith's hand to his lips. "Thank you, my lady. I shall invite you to the wedding."
She laughed. "Such confidence!"
Imrahil inclined his head. "To think one is going to fail is to make a certainty of it."
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.