9. Celebration Part I
Celebration Part I
Edoras FA 53
All these years later I still remember the relief I felt at the news that Amroth had been found, and my pride in the reports detailing his triumph over the raiders. I would have loved to have journeyed to Dol Amroth to see him myself, and to hug Devoran. She must have gone through hell waiting at home without news. But there was no possibility. I could not drag Éomer away from Aragorn – they had so little chance to spend time together in peace, just talking and enjoying one another's company. So many of their meetings had taken place on a battlefield. Also, duty and motherhood called me. I had left Elfwine for the first time since his birth, and had flown from Edoras on a whim, with barely an explanation to advisers and citizens, leaving fear in my wake. I needed to return to Meduseld, not go haring off to Dol Amroth.
We started the long journey as spring gave way to summer, a departure reminiscent, Éomer said, of him leaving Minas Tirith after the Ring war. The city streets were lined with well-wishers – Gondor's greatest ally had lain dying in the Healing Houses whilst his queen rode to the rescue on Mithrandir's legendary horse. The unusual happenings would provide the citizens with a good tale to tell their children by the fireside on winter nights.
Shadowfax, his job done, had set more eyes goggling as he descended from the stables to the city gate – riderless and unbridled – before galloping across the Pelennor on his way back to the plains of Rohan. A city of stone was never a good place for such a free spirit. We followed many days later. Aragorn and his guard came with us as far as Forannest, the Northern Gate, where Hadron saluted with a big grin on his face. Éomer and I paused and thanked him, as I had promised we would do if Éomer survived, before waving goodbye to the royal escort. Immediately I turned my mind towards home. Impatient, now the journey had actually started.
Edoras waited for us: the relief of the people that lined the way up to Meduseld palatable amid the joy. Elfwine had grown in the short time I had been away and I hugged him to me. Such a precious child, but I knew that I would leave him with little hesitation if Éomer were ever in danger again.
Life resumed at a more peaceful pace than it had for years. It seemed that Éomer's brush with death had made him extra appreciative of family life and he spent as much time with Elfwine and me as his duties allowed. One of the most noticeable things was that he no longer rushed out at first light to ride or go to the training fields, but lingered under the sheets enjoying the warmth and closeness of that special time before a new day claimed his attention.
Which was why we were still in bed when the messenger came from Dol Amroth. My father's errand riders always seemed to arrive at dawn. I often wondered if they waited outside the city gates to catch us still wiping sleep from our eyes. Did they feel that the messages they were carrying were of such importance that it warranted Éomer being dragged from his bed? This time, however, the letter was for me. As soon as that was established, Éomer mumbled something indiscernible, and snuggled back under the sheets.
I struggled to sit up. Hulde, having pulled back the curtains and placed some blackberry and nettle tea by my side, plumped up the pillows and handed me my letter to read.
Many thick pages – my father's neat hand flowed across the parchment like ripples on the sand. I read with growing astonishment until the dam burst and my laughter flowed out. I laughed so much my chest hurt. Éomer stirred, grumbling, as I concentrated on the letter. Poor father, he'd always had much to bear with his offspring's wilful ways. But ... never ... I gasped, hardly believing what I was reading. It looked like we would be going to Dol Amroth after all.
'Lothíriel, whatever is it?'
Éomer had finally woken up properly. He brushed the mass of hair from his face, and, laughing quietly, I handed him the letter to read for himself. Surprise; shock; even joy, it was all there.
Dol Amroth FA5
Evasive. That was the only word for it. Imrahil knew that his youngest son found it difficult to lie, so when Amroth didn't want you to know something, he had an annoying habit of expertly changing the subject. Which was why Imrahil's umpteenth enquiry into what might be stopping Erchirion's return, resulted in a lecture on the hierarchy and idiosyncrasies of Harad camels. All very interesting, but not what he needed to know.
'Fascinating, Amroth. Quite fascinating, but you still have not explained why your brother did not travel on the same ship as you and presumably is still in Harad.' Imrahil watched with increasing exasperation, tinged with more than a little amusement, the range of emotions crossing his son's handsome face. What would he come up with next?
'He feels it's important to immerse himself in Harad culture.' Amroth ventured at last. 'The Haradrim are great allies now and perhaps he thinks it best that one of us completely understands their way of life, their thinking even, in order that we might work more closely together.'
'Hogwash!' Imrahil stood up slapping his hands down on his thighs in pure frustration. 'I could believe that of you, but Erchirion? That really is pushing the boundaries. Since when has your brother shown any interest in our allies other than how they fight, what type of ale they brew and the availability of their women?' Women! Imrahil stopped abruptly. Was that what was keeping Erchi? 'Is it a woman Amroth? Is that why he's still there?'
Amroth had taken the opportunity to sidle to the door. 'There are plenty of available women here father; I doubt he has to stay in Harad to fulfil those needs. But I must go; I promised Oríon I would ride with him this morning.'
The door opened and closed and Imrahil was on his own, none the wiser and with only suspicion to sustain him. He sighed loudly. His children might have grown up, but they still stuck together better than chicken-glue. Even the few years when Erchi and Amroth had often been at daggers drawn trying to best one another had came to an end when Erchi had aided his brother's pursuit of Devoran. Perhaps he should do as Calaerdis kept suggesting – forget about it. Erchirion would come home eventually, and probably nothing would have changed.
But the reason continued to nag at him, which was why ten days later Imrahil rode down to the harbour to meet the second Harad ship flying a Dol Amroth standard. He did not ride alone, both Amroth and Elphir wanted to be there. That roused his suspicions further. It certainly brought out a crowd: old men put down their torn nets and fishwives left their chores to drag their offspring to the side of the dock, the youngsters gawping at the Prince and his sons. The ship was still a way out and to pass the time Imrahil spoke to everyone who came into his range, knowing most of them by name. The people of the port fulfilled a vital role and he liked to keep a good and easy relationship.
'Here she comes,' Amroth drew his attention back to the incoming ship.
The fresh wind kicked up white horses across the bay and the tide was running in fast, so sensibly the captain dropped his sails outside the harbour entrance. Tide and oars brought the ship in, but it all took extra time, fuelling Imrahil's impatience.
Eventually he saw his second son on deck. Erchirion came to the rail and waved before shouting something down to Amroth which Imrahil couldn't quite catch.
'What did he say?'
Amroth grinned. 'That it's nice to be missed, but he never expected a family gathering.'
'Humph...' It struck Imrahil that his son looked different, and as Erchirion turned to talk to some of his soldiers, he realised that his normally straggly hair had been cut neatly. Also, far from looking his untidy self, he wore a very smart tunic decorated with his crossed sword device as well as a silver swan-ship. An obviously new dark-blue cloak swung from his shoulders, the rich material having a sheen that caught the sunlight.
'Who tidied him up? There must be a woman involved.'
Elphir had taken the words out of his mouth. Imrahil firmed his lips ready to quickly question Amroth again, but was forestalled by the commotion of the gangway coming down and Erchirion appearing at the top.
Imrahil closed his eyes ... he must have been seeing things. But when he opened them again, she was still there. He saw Erchirion take her arm and steady her as the walkway moved slightly under their weight, and then lead her carefully down to the quayside. He glanced at Elphir: his eldest son's mouth was open in astonishment, but a moment later he had closed it firmly and his shoulders started to shake.
Amroth had sensibly moved out of range of his father's accusing stare.
Praying to Ulmo for tolerance and understanding, Imrahil slid off his horse and started to walk towards Erchirion and his...woman. She was tall, but that was as much as he could tell about her because, as all the Harad women he had met, she was shrouded from head to foot in black. As he got nearer he could see that the robes were made of a fine material that glinted with silver thread. It matched the silver veil. Of her face, only her eyes showed: they were black as well, but soft as velvet, glowing with unfathomable depth.
Dragging his astonished gaze away Imrahil looked at his son. Other than a suggestion of amusement, Erchirion betrayed nothing but pride. He inclined his head slightly and then indicated to the woman whose hand he held with a possessive grip.
'Father, may I introduce my wife, Inayah.'
Wife! Imrahil reeled... and he'd thought that after withstanding the ride to the Black Gates nothing could unnerve him. But he managed through long training to plaster a smile over his face.
'You are very welcome, my dear.'
Another woman appeared, but less richly dressed – in plain black and carrying a bag, she bowed her head. 'My wife's servant, Luja.'
Imrahil smiled, all he was capable of doing. Luckily Elphir and Amroth had joined them by then and further introductions had to be made. He heard Elphir ask if they should call a wain for the ladies – yes for Luja, but Inayah would ride with her husband – and caught Amroth giving his brother a wink.
Elphir managed to get close and whisper under his breath, 'A greater shock that when I arrived with Meren, I feel.'
That didn't even come near it.
Perhaps it was his age. Imrahil had always prided himself on being able to deal with anything life threw at him, but Erchi's unheralded and unexpected marriage had totally unsettled him. Inayah had been here for days, but he still found it difficult to converse with her. He loved his family, and his extended family, and valued his relationship with Meren and Devoran, loved them immensely and treated them as if they were his own daughters. But how did you form a relationship with a woman whose face you couldn't see?
'She does remove her veil to eat when the family dine together.' Calaerdis came up behind him and leaned her head against his shoulder, sighing softly. With pleasure at the contact, Imrahil hoped. He turned and took her in his arms, bending his head to whisper in her delicate ear. She smelt delicious: her perfume always sultry and inviting.
'How do you always know what I am thinking?'
Calaerdis chuckled, low in her throat. 'It's not difficult. I have never seen you otherwise than in control of every situation. But you do not seem to know how to deal with this.'
'I don't,' Imrahil admitted. He let her go and paced moodily towards his desk, picking up a paperweight and fingering the rough glass. 'Erchirion is a grown man, well capable of making his own decisions. I respect that. But I never expected this.'
Shapely eyebrows rose in question. 'Did you expect him to come home with a buxom barmaid on his arm? Everyone else seems to have been waiting for years for that to happen. Surely this is better, Imrahil. You cannot fault Inayah's lineage.'
'No, as a half-sister to Amal, I cannot. But...'
'And what about your first wife's ancestors. Didn't you tell me one was a Harad princess?'
Imrahil frowned. 'That was eons ago. And anyway, I can't believe Sawda wore a veil all the time from what I read about her.' He dropped the paperweight back onto the desk; it landed with a thump. Imrahil ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. 'I have no problem with the marriage really, it's just so unexpected. And Amroth keeping it from me hurts a bit.'
'In all fairness, Imrahil, Amroth explained that did not really expect Erchi to marry her, so thought it best to say nothing.'
'Rubbish. Amal would hardly allow him to mess with his sister and not marry her.'
'No, I suppose not. Men can be unbelievably priggish when it comes to their sisters.' She laughed wickedly. 'It's a good job I have no brothers.'
Her eyes flickered a challenge, but he didn't rise to it, just sighed once more. He had asked her to marry him often enough and had just about given up. He doubted a brother could have made her either, Calaerdis would always go her own way. He had vowed some months ago that he would not mention the subject again, having a horrible feeling that any try at advancement would only lead to retreat. But he supposed that when it came to irregular relationships, he had not set a good example and could hardly blame Erchirion for not doing the conventional thing by marrying a Gondorian noblewoman.
'I wish Lothíriel was here,' he said suddenly. 'She might be able to talk to Inayah. Persuade her that she would fit in a lot better and feel more at home if she adopted our ways. If she did that, she would soon lose her shyness.'
'I am not sure that Lothíriel would achieve anything if Erchi hasn't. And aren't the Harad woman supposed to obey their husbands?'
'He says it's up to her,' Imrahil answered. 'But Lothíriel got on well with Amal, she might know what to say. And she's had to adjust to a very different way of life, it would give them common ground.' But of course Lothíriel seemed to have adapted to living in Rohan with no problems at all. Thinking of her brought on an urgent need to see his daughter; they didn't meet nearly often enough, even though Edoras wasn't that far away. 'It would be nice for Elfwine to come, to play on the beach and go sailing. He was only a baby during their last visit, but he would have a fine time now. Can you think of any excuse to get them here?'
Calaerdis turned abruptly and went over to the window, looking out at a leaden sea. Unusually for the season, the weather had turned foul; the wind moaning in the turrets and the harbour obscured by grey mist. She didn't answer him for a moment and he became distracted by admiring the way the cut of her soft-blue day dress showed off her slim waist. And her hair, he wanted to pull out the silver-headed pin that held the thick knot against the nape of her neck and ... but that would get him nowhere, so he prompted again. 'I doubt they would come just to meet Inayah at the moment, with Éomer just back from war. But is there anyone's birthday coming up? One worth celebrating that might persuade them?'
She shook her head. But Imrahil didn't want to give up, although he guessed Éomer would prefer to stay at home for a while. But still. 'There must be something I can use to draw them here.'
'Would they come for a wedding?' Calaerdis answered at last.
'Wedding!' Imrahil exclaimed. 'Don't tell me Erchi hasn't actually married her yet. He hasn't stolen Amal's sister, has he? Are you saying I can expect Harad war-ships on the next tide?' He wouldn't put anything past his middle-son and Amroth had said he wasn't anticipating them to marry.
Calaerdis turned away from the window, eyes crinkling with amusement. 'Of course Erchi married her, he would never have been allowed to leave otherwise.'
'Humph...' Imrahil let out, slightly mollified. 'Then whose wedding are you talking about?' He ran his mind through the list of possibilities, but could think of no one important enough to induce a visit from Éomer and Lothíriel. The last time they had come was when Sergion married Marin, and that had been timed to fit in with their visit, not the other way around.
'They would come for our wedding.'
Imrahil stared at her. She was trying to keep her face expressionless, but a little tell-tell smile tweaked the corners of her lips. 'That's if you still want to marry me.'
Stunned, he didn't move. Surprisingly, he didn't feel elated, more numb. Did she mean it? 'Why now, Calaerdis, why now?'
She shrugged her shoulders and dropped her eyes momentarily before facing him again. 'I don't know why now, maybe because I sensed you might not ask me again and I realised that after all this time I could have left it too late.'
He took the few steps towards her, pulling her into his embrace. With a little laugh she melted against him, and Imrahil dropped his lips into her fragrant hair. 'I had made up my mind not to ask you anymore, but only because I couldn't stand further rejections. I love you, and I was sure you loved me, but have never quite understood your reasons for refusal.' He could feel her heart beating, see the pulse at her throat quicken as he held her. 'What frightens you about marriage, what has held you back for so long? I desperately want to be able to call you my wife, but I would like to know.'
She started hesitantly. 'I think we have something special. And I didn't want that to change. From what I have seen, it is so easy for husbands to take their wives for granted....' Imrahil opened his mouth to protest, but she laid a finger over his lips to stop him. 'You needed a mistress for Dol Amroth. I preferred to be your mistress, not just valued for my social graces and my organising abilities.'
'Calaerdis, that's plain stupid. If I had only wanted someone to preside at banquets and dispense the bed sheets, I could have married any number of women, enough of them hung around like hungry wasps after Aearin died.'
'I know. But also I have never liked the idea of being a man's possession. I had enough of that with my first husband.'
'Surely you know me better than that.' But he could only admit to himself that she had a point, not a possession exactly, but a man liked to be able to call his wife his own.
'I do. I think I always did know you would never treat me like that, but it still bothered me. In the end I told myself I was being ridiculous, and I would have married you some time ago, but you haven't asked me for ages. I've been plucking up courage to mention it, but you have only just given me the opportunity.'
That made him laugh, and he squeezed her against him. 'Pluck up the courage! I have never known you not to say what you think or not to ask for what you want.'
'Maybe, but a woman doesn't normally ask a man to marry her,' she said, burying her face in his chest.
Imrahil put a finger under her chin and lifted it up so that he could look into her eyes. 'Calaerdis, I love you, will you please do me the honour of being my wife?'
At last. That was all he needed to know.
To be continued.
Original Characters appearing in this chapter.
Hadron Keeper of the Northern Gate of the Pelennor. Son of Ingold.
Devoran Daughter of Duinhir of Morthond – married to Prince Amrothos.
Meren Married to Prince Elphir..
Lady Calaerdis From Sirith in Lebennin. A rich widow, mistress to Imrahil of Dol Amroth.
Oríon. Childhood friend of Amrothos'. A shipbuilder.
Sergion Imrahil's closest friend, once his captain and Lothíriel's bodyguard. Father
Aearin Imrahil's first wife.
Marin A war-widow now married to Sergion
Prince Amal Ruler of Near Harad.
Sawda A Harad princess and ancestor of Aearin.
Inayah Amal's half-sister. Married Erchirion.
Luja Inayah's servant from Harad,
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