Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Courting the Lady: 5. A Dinner-Party
What purpose will my presence serve, in that group? He shook his head. But I shall have to attend.
Gesturing to the messenger to wait, he quickly wrote out a polite note of acceptance, letting none of the surprise he felt show through in the formal phrases. He sealed it with a hasty drop of red wax and thrust it into the man’s hands with a small coin.
“To the Steward, of course, and thank you.”
I could wish that Denethor would not be present – Adrahil’s children will be good company, and it could be a pleasure to discuss military or political matters. But Denethor. . . Is he not right to look on me askance, if he but knew it? Am I ready to lay bare all my heart and mind and will with respect to Gondor?
Thorongil rose and paced about the chamber. I could play an honored role as Thorongil. The rumors of kinship with the Steward would be enough to secure trust, and explain why I do not speak of my heritage. But to become king – that would mean confiding in Ecthelion, and inevitably in Denethor. He rubbed at his cheek. Ecthelion is a good Steward of this land, and his son well-trained to follow him. There would be no purpose at this time in my stepping forward. Gondor has endured kingless for centuries – would she accept a king again, especially if her Steward did not? Would I risk a civil war for the sake of kingship? He stared out the window without seeing anything for several minutes before recollecting himself and turning to finish packing his things for departure.
At the appointed hour that evening, Thorongil presented himself at the Steward’s private quarters and was shown to a richly furnished room, lit in part by the last rays of the setting sun and in part by great white tapers. Ecthelion and Denethor were already present, and from the set look on the latter’s face, it appeared that father and son had been having words. Thorongil ignored the tension and greeted them.
“Ah, Thorongil. A pleasure to have you here,” said Ecthelion. Denethor echoed him with a similar phrase of welcome.
“I asked you here,” said Ecthelion, “because. . . well, as soon as Adrahil and his family arrive, we will discuss it. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine? From Dorwinion – a rare vintage, I think it very fine.”
Thorongil accepted a goblet from the unobtrusive servant hovering nearby. Tasting the rich flavor, he complimented the Steward on his choice.
Ecthelion waved him to a seat. “Yes, the pressings of Dorwinion’s vineyards produce headier draughts than any in this country. One must be careful with them – they are not for ordinary occasions. But at times one wishes to be extravagant, and tonight there is ample justification. Ah, I think I hear the Prince now.”
All three men rose, and Denethor and Thorongil bowed, as the door opened and Adrahil entered, followed by his daughter and son.
Ecthelion held out his hand in greeting. “Welcome, my old friend. Come in, be seated. Take a glass of wine. Finduilas, Imrahil, do not be shy – come and take a chair.”
Amid the bustle of service Thorongil noted that Denethor’s eyes lingered on Finduilas as she spread her skirts to sit, and that when she glanced back, she had visibly to compose herself, her hand rising to the piece of white lace at her neck. What is this, then? He intended to change his first seat for one nearer the lady, but Ecthelion beckoned him. Perforce he had to leave Finduilas to the company of Denethor alone, the two men of Dol Amroth being already in close conversation with the Steward.
“I had not expected this so soon, my lord,” Adrahil was saying. “His mother will be distressed not to see him again before he takes up his post.”
Imrahil’s face was eager. “Yes, Father,” he said, “but it is far more sensible for me to leave directly from Minas Tirith than to journey home and then turn around and leave again immediately. Captain Thorongil,” he looked over, “it would seem that I am to join your company.”
This came as a surprise; usually Ecthelion would have given some warning that a new officer was to be appointed. “I see,” said Thorongil. “Well, I shall certainly be pleased to have you. What rank will you hold?”
Ecthelion intervened. “He will begin without any rank, Thorongil. This is by his own choice and request; he wants to see how the common Rangers experience their duties. So if you can, do not treat him out of the ordinary way. I do not believe any of the men presently in your company are from Belfalas, much less Dol Amroth?”
“Good. Then Imrahil can remain anonymous to them for the time being. If and when you need an additional junior officer, and assuming that you think him up to the task, then promote him, of course.”
Imrahil grinned. “I know I have not the experience, yet, to justify placing me in command. Better to learn things from the bottom up, don’t you think?”
Thorongil smiled back. “If that is what you prefer, I am happy to accommodate you. I have no need for an extra officer at the moment, in point of fact, but we can always use more men on patrol. I will talk to you about your skills and abilities as we travel; no need to do so tonight. Are you prepared to leave tomorrow? I am already a day delayed from my intended departure, and I would rather not wait any longer.”
Imrahil nodded firmly. “All my fine things are packed up, ready to be taken back to Dol Amroth; I have kept out only what would be practical for my new duties.” He laughed and plucked at the blue silk of his sleeve. “Except for tonight’s attire, of course.”
Adrahil sighed. “Had I known your intention, I might not have brought you to meet with Lord Ecthelion this morning. Well, since you are determined, Imrahil, I shall have to let you do this. But do write a message to your mother that I can take. You know she will be worrying about you.”
“Of course,” said Imrahil with mild indignation. “I have already done so; Finduilas has the letter.”
“It is all settled, then,” said Ecthelion. “Let me interrupt the pair over in the corner, and we may dine.”
Dinner was an elaborate affair, punctuated with conversation mostly about the events of the past month of Ringarë: which families had been in Minas Tirith, what parties and balls had been held, what alliances and contracts concluded. Thorongil listened with only half an ear, as the niceties of social engagements held little of immediate interest to him. He would have liked to speak with Finduilas, but she was seated at Ecthelion’s right hand, cornerwise across the table and half-concealed behind a great silver epergne, while he sat between her father and brother.
“Why did you decide to take up your post so soon?” Thorongil quietly inquired of Imrahil when the latter paused from narrating the outcome of a race he had run the past week against Duinhir of Morthond.
Imrahil looked uncomfortable, speaking in an undertone. “Two reasons, really, one that I would prefer not to discuss just now.” More audibly, he continued, “In part because it was a chance to serve under you, sir, and I have heard you spoken of very highly as a captain. They say that you use every man to his best advantage and yet hardly lose one even in the worst situations. And they say that training under your supervision is as good as training under any other three – well, nearly,” he added with a glance at Denethor across the table, who was looking grim at the compliment to Thorongil.
I wonder what the other reason could be? On the journey, perhaps, he will be willing to speak more freely. If he is trying to avoid the consequences of some scrape, I want to know. “Well, for whatever reason, I am pleased to have you. Have no fear that I will coddle you; there is no room for that among the ranging companies. Each man must bear his full share of duty out in Ithilien.”
The Steward’s Heir listened to his words. Thorongil tried not to mind the cool stare, and was glad when the man returned his attention to Finduilas for the rest of the meal.
When the table had been cleared and they were once again mingling more freely, Thorongil was able to snatch a moment to speak with Finduilas. “Did you encourage your brother to join my company?” he asked.
She blushed and admitted it. “But he was bound to join one of them, sooner or later,” she pointed out. “All I did was speak highly of you as a friend; he made his own decision. Though I am glad of his choice.”
“You will probably receive less interesting letters this way, you realize,” he warned. “We shall undoubtedly have similar things to tell you.”
“Oh, I do not worry about that,” Finduilas replied, “so long as I hear from you both to know that all is well – or as well as can be expected. Moreover I shall certainly feel less concern over my brother’s welfare knowing that you will look out for him – and the other way around, as well,” she said, looking Thorongil in the eyes. “I would be devastated to lose both of you at once.”
“Both your brothers?” jested Thorongil.
“Yes, both of you,” she said.
Both, she says, but says not “brother.” No, do not read into that more than she might mean. Remember what Gethron said – I am a stranger here, and for all her kindness Finduilas will not have forgotten our respective positions. She could not think of me as anything more than a brother – it is remarkable that she would consider me as highly as that to begin with.
At that moment Imrahil came up to them and claimed his sister’s attention, dragging her off to answer a question that Denethor wished to ask her.
Thorongil murmured to the servant to refill his cup with water, not wine, and moved to speak to Ecthelion and Adrahil.
“I hope to hear good news of my son,” said Adrahil, “once he has had a chance to prove himself.”
“Oh, I doubt not that he will turn to good account, sir; you are known as an excellent swordsman yourself, and I am sure that you have seen that Imrahil has had all the proper training. Granted, practice and reality are far different, yet I would expect him to do well,” Thorongil said politely.
The Steward added, “Though he is a bit young yet, that will make little difference since he starts among the ranks rather than taking an officer’s post. I remember that I had difficulties with that, being younger than any man I commanded when I first held an appointment. Your son is wise, Adrahil, to choose the path he has.”
The three of them turned to look at Imrahil, gaily recounting a story to his sister and Denethor. Finduilas was laughing and even Denethor smiled.
“Though this has been a most pleasant evening, I fear the hour begins to grow late,” said Thorongil. “If you will excuse me, my lords, I would like to oversee my last preparations for departure and enjoy a last night in a soft bed.”
“Certainly,” said Ecthelion genially. “Have you told young Imrahil when and where to meet you in the morning?”
“I will do so now, and then go,” Thorongil replied. “I thank you, my lord Steward, for asking me to be in your company tonight. Lord Adrahil, it was a pleasure to see you again. Please convey my best regards to your lady; I understand she is not well at present, and I am sorry not to have met her this season.”
“Thank you,” said Adrahil gravely. “I appreciate your kind thoughts.”
Thorongil moved over to the younger party and waited for a break in their conversation. “Imrahil,” he said, “I will come by your father’s house to meet you shortly after dawn tomorrow. Have you your own horse here? If not I can assign you one.”
“I do,” said Imrahil. “She is stabled at the Great Gate. I will be ready to meet you as you say, and will send word to have her saddled and waiting.”
“Lady Finduilas, it was my pleasure to see you again. May your journey home be swift and safe,” and he bowed over her hand.
“Thank you, Captain Thorongil,” she said. “May yours be so as well.”
They bowed stiffly. Rising, Thorongil nodded once more to the company and departed.
So I am to have her brother with me, then. I will have no excuse not to write often. He sighed. This may prove more tangled than I had anticipated when I first agreed to Finduilas’s proposals. What can she be thinking? She calls me brother, sometimes, but is that indeed how she sees me? Do I think of her as sister, or friend, or something else entirely? As Thorongil I can have no greater aspirations than my present circumstances. But if I were to claim my true name and heritage? My foster-father once said that I must prove myself worthy before I could betroth myself to any man’s child. . .
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