78. Chapter 77
I found myself outside in the corridor with the servant, who was tasked with escorting me back to the gate, but I had only one thought, and that was how I could possibly contrive to see Idhrethil one last time before I departed, for it was clear to me that it was quite possible we would never see each other again in this world. I frantically rehearsed various scenarios in my mind, but the problem was that I did not know where she could be found, and would soon become hopelessly lost if I dispensed with my escort. However we had not gone far when we met a woman, cloaked and hooded against the chill night air, and the servant stopped and bowed low, and I followed suit. It was none other than the Princess Elien, and she smiled warmly when she saw me. "Esteldir, well met, I was hoping beyond hope that I would find you before you depart, for I have a matter of great import to discuss with you. Arthon, you may return to his Lordship, I will see the Captain on his way". The servant bowed and turned away, walking briskly back the way he had come.
When he was out of earshot she spoke to me in a low voice "I am so glad I found you. I heard what they purpose for you to do, and knew that Barachon wished to speak to you ere you departed but knew not the hour of your meeting. By good fortune I have found you in the nick of time!" I wondered momentarily at the curious twist of fate that had led to a princess of the realm wandering the passages of a dark citadel looking for me but said nothing. "Idhrethil was heartbroken when she heard you had been ordered to go west again, and I promised you both that I would do what I could for you so you shall see each other one last time. Please come back, it is long since I saw her so happy". Her fair face crumpled a little and her eyes filled with tears, and though she did not say so I knew she was not expecting me to return. "I heard them talking about it, the King insisted that an embassy be sent to plead for my brother to be brought home, but both Lord Barachon and my husband thought that it was a fool's errand. I am so sorry that they chose you to carry it out". Her voice trailed off, but I had no opportunity to reply, for we had arrived at our destination, a door leading to rooms close by those that Angon had dwelt in before his death. Elien rapped softly on the door, and after a short pause it was opened by Idhrethil, and her face lit up when she saw us there. "I found him" said the Princess smiling and the two friends embraced. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart" replied Idhrethil, kissing her on the cheek as they parted and smiling radiantly at me. The Princess bid me farewell, and then much to my surprise embraced me too, with tears running down her cheeks. And then at last I was alone again with the woman I loved more than anything in the world.
I followed her into the room and she closed the door behind us, and she turned to me with tears in her eyes as well and we came together and held each other tight for a very long time. "Oh my love" she said, and my heart sang to hear her speak so. "What cruel twist of fate means that I must have what I desire torn away from me the very moment I have it within my grasp. For I have loved you from the very first moment we met that blessed day in the Library, and there has not been a day since that I did not think of you with longing and regret." At this I could not help but laugh, and through my own tears declare that I had been exactly of the same mind, and had forever regretted not taking her in my arms when I had the chance. "Oh, I wish you had" she replied, for I too dared not do so for fear of making you think I was some desperate widow with no manners. Much ill could have been averted if we had both been a little braver. But now nothing stands between us any more, not for a few hours at least". And with that she held me close and we kissed passionately for the first time.
And then without shame or the slightest feeling of awkwardness between us we went to her bedchamber and lay together and knew true happiness. Beforehand I had expressed concern about her reputation and honour, and she had laughed and playfully scolded me, telling me that a woman twice widowed and past the first flush of youth had no such concerns, and that it was my own honour that was in peril. Oh Idhrethil, though half a lifetime has passed since last I saw you, the memory of our brief happiness and the pain of loss is as sharp and fresh as ever.
After the first throes of passion were spent we lay long together talking of our lives, and even imagining what a future together might be like if we ever had the chance of it. I told her I would come back for her and we would run away to Arthedain and start a new life far from the perils and misery of Lastbridge and Rhudaur. We would live simply, in a vale ideally, and farm sheep and grow old together far from lords and kings and wars. She also spoke quietly of her anguish on learning that Angon was dying and that I was at his side so close by, but she had been forbidden to have any further association with him by her new husband. He had also forbidden her to attend his funeral, and she had tried to slip out unnoticed early on that morning but been apprehended and punished for it. I regretted bitterly that I had doubted her in that matter and begged her for forgiveness. She told me to hush, and thanked me for the service I had performed for our dearest friend, and said that if he could see us now he would be very happy for us. We both giggled at the idea, naked and immodest as we were at that moment, and then fell together once again.
I woke, and lying in the dark entwined with the warmth and softness of my love against me did not know for a while if I still dreamt or not, but recollection returned, and my blissful happiness was quickly marred with the knowledge that we must soon part, perhaps forever. I lay there for as long as I dared, savouring every moment and drinking in every detail until the morning bell sounded in the distance and I knew I could not tarry any longer. I woke her gently and she smiled wistfully, kissed me and rose. We dressed in silence, and she helped me put on my gear and then we ate a small breakfast together in the gloom. It was strange to be in what was clearly still another man's home, for signs of Belegon's former presence were everywhere. And then, when I could delay no further we embraced dry eyed and she said "come back to me my love" and taking the dagger from my belt cut a lock of her hair, rolled it up around her finger and put it in my scrip. We shared one last modest kiss, I stroked her cheek and then I turned away, opened the door and left, looking back as I did so. She smiled her wonderful smile, and raised her hand to her heart and then she was gone.
The men were already gathered in the vast courtyard, and made a few ribald comments when they saw me, and I cursed them back, but it was all rather for show and I knew we were all doubtful about what awaited us. To my surprise horses had been brought up, one for each man and two carrying our supplies. They were all stocky Rhudaur horses with shaggy black coats bar one, which was larger and more elegant, and to my dismay much taller too. It was clear I was going to be expected to ride this one, which had a coat the colour of ochre, as befitted my status as an ambassador. The ostler assured me that she was a gentle old girl who would look after me, and that we would all have plenty of time to get used to riding them on the journey. He also gave us lengthy instructions as to their care and warned us that we should bring them all back sound and hale, for he at least did not seem consider us doomed. We were also given two standards, the banner of Rhudaur and a white flag of parley, which I assigned to the care of two of my companions. For myself I double checked that I still carried my letter of authority and stowed it carefully, wondering whether I would ever have need of it. Then, when all was ready we set off, leading our horses on foot. We fell silent as we crossed the cobbles to the gatehouse and left the fortress, and as we passed under its arch I glanced towards the citadel and felt a bitter mix of elation and terrible loss rise in my breast.