Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Courting the Lady: 9. Dol Amroth
His sister turned to face him where he stood by a laurel tree, holding out a shawl to her. “Thank you.”
He laid it around her shoulders and gave her a one-armed hug. “I thought you might become chilly when I saw you had slipped outside without anything.”
Finduilas leaned into his embrace and he felt her shiver, just slightly. “A little, but I’m accustomed to the evening, even night air – it is often the only time I can find to come into the gardens, since I must stay with Mother all day.”
“There is no hope, is there?” Imrahil’s voice shook, though he tried to steady it.
“No hope for recovery, no. Only hope that she will find a peaceful end, without too much pain. Your coming has made her very happy, Im – I have not seen her so animated nor cheerful in months – but from what the healers have told me it is only a matter of time, more or less depending on her strength of body and will.”
“It is so hard to see her this way that I don’t know how you can bear it.”
“We bear what we must, don’t we?”
“Not always. . .” Imrahil paused. “I will tell you a secret, shall I? It shames me to say so, but a good part of the reason why I went directly to take up my position in the company last winter was because I couldn’t come back and watch Mother dying, when I could do nothing about it.”
Finduilas hugged him tighter. “It’s all right, Im. I can understand that. Of course I wish you had been here this year – so do Mother and Father – but you did not flee for no purpose, you have been serving our people by your choice, so it was not a dishonorable one. If you had stayed, sullen and avoiding your family, that would have been far worse.”
“You don’t think my decision was dishonorable? I am glad to hear that. Often this past year I regretted that I had left you to cope alone, but I really didn’t think my presence would be of help. I have learned a great deal out in Ithilien, that is certain.”
“Tell me of it.” She thrust one hand out from the shawl, testing the air. “Come, let’s go inside. We can have a nice comfortable talk in my room – I’ll even have some spice cakes brought up for you.”
He grinned. “You know me well, sister!”
“Of course.” She nudged him playfully. “I have known you all your life, remember! Come on.”
They settled down, sprawled on the rug before the fire in Finduilas’s room, plate of spice cakes close to hand.
“It’s good to be home,” Imrahil said, swallowing and washing the bite down with a pull at a mug of that season’s cider. “I have missed our evening talks.”
Finduilas nodded, nibbling at her own cake. “Have you no one to talk with, out in your camp? I thought you got on rather well with your comrades, from your letters.”
“Oh, yes. But there isn’t opportunity for much serious conversation, you understand. When we’re on patrol, or even just guard duty at the camp, we must be quiet much of the time, lest we alert an enemy. When off-duty, naturally, a good bit of talking goes on, but it’s more likely to be telling jokes and stories, or perhaps singing. I don’t want to say that the fellows are never serious, but when you’ve been risking your life you don’t usually want to dwell on it a good deal afterward. You want something distracting, something funny.”
“What kinds of stories do you tell, then? I would like to hear one. . . or you could tell me about one of your patrols.”
Imrahil felt heat stain his cheeks. “Er. . . I don’t think you’d approve of the sorts of stories that soldiers tell, Fin.”
“Oh, that kind, are they?” His sister laughed. “I hate to ruin your opinion of me, but I’ve heard such stories before, and even been known to enjoy them. But you need not tell me any such if you do not wish. As I said, I’d be pleased just to hear what it is really like to be out there – I want to know how you live. Is Captain Thorongil as good a commander as you expected?”
“Of course I have no one to compare him to,” said Imrahil, “but I would call him excellent, judging from what others say who have more experience.”
“In what ways?”
I wonder. . . does she inquire so eagerly for my sake, or for his?
“The care he takes for all his men. He judges well concerning how many of us to send out on patrol, in which directions, for our greatest safety and efficacy in destroying our enemies. We all know that the captain has assigned us to a particular unit because he thinks that our skills will be needed, and that our chances for return are high. Within camp, he sees that chores are shared equally – he has no obvious favorites, nor scapegoats, and no one who has earned punishment or praise escapes it. He eats with us, too, the same food as we all have. Indeed he has each man in turn join him at the officers’ table, and when we do so, he makes a point of conversing with us so that he knows us well as men, not just as fighters.”
“How is the food there? I know your appetite,” said Finduilas, as Imrahil took the last cake from the plate.
“We eat as well as any company, better than most. I don’t know how the captain manages it, but we almost never have trouble with our supplies – no moldy bacon or flour filled with weevils. We’re all under orders to keep an eye out for anything that might add a bit of interest to the meals, too, as long as duty comes first,” said Imrahil.
“Do you ever have a chance to speak with Captain Thorongil, learn how to command? Mother was disappointed that you didn’t take rank to begin with, you know, and Father had a hard time convincing her to accept that it might be a good idea, especially given that he had his own doubts on the matter.”
Imrahil chuckled. “There is no better way to learn than to serve under a good commander, and observe what he does, and how. Though it is true that asking about the whys of some of it is helpful. I have perhaps a bit more of the captain’s attention than some. He himself leads some of the training in sword fighting, and often has me practice with him during the sessions. But otherwise I am not singled out – which is as I wanted. Any praise I receive is due solely to my own ability, rather than to an attempt to curry favor. There is always a certain amount of dislike or resentment among ordinary soldiers towards their officers, but from what I hear less in our company than in most. The captain is so even-handed in his conduct that they expect it; even the slight interest he has shown in my training has been known to provoke comment among the other recruits, and the older men as well.”
“They don’t tease or bully you, do they?” Finduilas asked.
There speaks the older sister, who would claim sole rights to such actions, thought Imrahil with amusement, though in truth he had to acknowledge that even in their childhood Finduilas had been restrained in asserting the prerogatives of age, despite his severe provocation on more than one occasion.
“No more than anyone else,” he replied with good humor. “Anyone, but especially we younger lads, comes in for a certain amount of jesting at his expense. The captain would frown on anything more,” he added, and saw her face clear. “So tell me, Fin, how fares it with you? Despite all the time you must spend with Mother and all the thousand-and-one duties of the household, you are a diligent correspondent to me – how can you manage? Are you still writing to others as well?”
“Of course. I made your captain promise to write to me – so naturally I write to him in return. Don’t worry,” she said as he raised his brows, “we do not spend all our ink and parchment discussing you.”
“I didn’t presume you did. I only wondered what your topics would be,” Imrahil answered.
“All kinds of things – I seem to speak of different matters with each of you. You know that Lord Denethor and I correspond, too. To Thorongil I often write of Mother, oddly enough. I suppose that I feel it would distress you too much, if I were to write to you always of that sadness – since he knows her not at all, it is easier. To Denethor I am wont to talk of more high-minded matters, such as the duties of a ruler and abstruse points of philosophy.”
Imrahil looked at his sister in surprise. “You jest!”
By the stars, that is strange of Fin. Not that she hasn’t a clever mind, but I would never have expected her to have a turn for philosophy, not even in conversation with Lord Denethor. She’s always been much more of a doer – I recall some of the scrapes we used to get into together. This portends something, I’m sure of it. Aloud he said, “Quite the variety of letters you must send and receive, then. Whose do you enjoy most?”
“You just want me to say ‘yours,’ I know,” she teased. “Honestly, it depends on my mood at the time and on the letter.”
“So you even like Denethor’s? Remarkable. And what of the authors?”
“Oh, Im, of course I love you best. Need you even ask? The holiday season has made you awfully sentimental, little brother,” Finduilas said.
He grinned. “Just here to remind you of the joys of your birth family, that’s all, before you make some precipitous decision. Or have you already had one to make, and done so?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said, but she would not quite meet his eyes.
“Humph. Well, if ever you wish to discuss such matters with me, feel free – I may be a handful of years your junior, but I’m the only sibling you have. You can’t expect me to be uninterested in your future.” He yawned. “But for your immediate future – and mine too – I would recommend that we should both go to bed. It must be nearly tomorrow already.”
Finduilas stood up and went to the window, pushing open the shutters to see the sky. The cool air made Imrahil shiver despite his place near the embers of the fire. “Yes, there is a hint of dawn to the east. I’m sorry to have kept you up so late. . .”
“It was a mutual decision, remember? We’ve been making up for all those months apart.” Imrahil stood and stretched. “You should get some rest, Fin, you look tired. No wonder, looking after Mother and all.” He touched her face gently at the corner of her eye, then kissed her cheek. “We can speak further tomorrow, perhaps – I won’t have to leave for another five days.”
She kissed him back. “Sleep well, Im. And shave that beard soon, or you’ll be looking like one of those Rohirrim mercenaries!”
Brother and sister were unable to spend more than a few moments together in private for the next three days, caught up in the bustle of preparations and then in the celebration of mettarë and yestarë. More than once in those days Imrahil noted a look of abstraction on his sister’s face, and wondered what it was. He resolved to ask her as soon as he had the chance, which came the day after yestarë.
Nimíril had exerted herself for the festivities. When they ended, weakness forced her to return to her bed to recover, but she insisted that her children should not feel obliged to stay with her.
“Spend some time with your sister today,” she told her son when he brought her tea. “I will take the opportunity to rest, and then you can sit with me and your father this evening.”
Imrahil felt a shade guilty at leaving her – after all, it was to see his mother that he had been granted leave at all – but was delighted to have the chance to get out of the household and city. His year in Ithilien had affected him more than he would have expected, and he looked forward to the quiet of the countryside in Finduilas’s company.
She suggested that they ride down the coastline a short way, then tether the horses and walk to one of their favorite childhood haunts. “But I won’t climb the cliff, no matter what you say,” she smiled, reminding him of one of their less-than-successful childhood exploits. “Here, you carry our luncheon,” she added.
He made as if to open the canvas sack and look inside, and Finduilas mock-slapped at his hand. “You’ll eat it soon enough, leave be,” she admonished him.
Following the gap made by a tiny stream finding its way to the ocean, they soon reached the expanse of white sand. Clouds scudding across the sky dimmed the green sea to irregular greys, with only an occasional flash of light reflected from the breakers.
Imrahil sprawled out comfortably – for once he had remembered to bring along a blanket to keep them off the sand – and watched Finduilas walk along the edge of the water. He saw her pause, looking out to sea, and shake her head. “What were you thinking?” he asked when she had returned.
She sat down, clasping her knees to her chest. “Of something that Thorongil told me, last winter in Minas Tirith, about the likeness of the sea to the plains. I confess I do not see it. Though the grasses may ripple in the wind as the waves do, they cannot make the sound of the waters upon the shore.” Her gaze was wide and unseeing, and she murmured so low he could scarcely hear her, “I do not know if I could endure to live where I heard not the crash of the wave nor the cry of the gull.”
“Is that something you think likely?”
Finduilas blinked, saying, “Likely? Yes, of course. I have always known that. If your duty is to serve your land and people through war and policy, mine is to do so through marriage and management. Do you not take pride and pleasure in your duties, Im?”
“In doing them well, certainly.”
“Though you may not always wish to do what you must,” she agreed. “So do I. And just as you do not know where your service might take you, neither do I – but it is certain not to leave me here in Dol Amroth. Father is not pressing me, not yet; he leaves it to my own conscience to choose what would be best for my family and our people, not only for myself.”
Imrahil squinted at her, saying, “And what would you do if you could choose freely, without thinking of others?” Would she stay here at home? I cannot believe that – she would never forego marriage altogether, not Fin.
When his sister’s silence remained unbroken for some time, he persisted, “Is there not some man you would wish to wed, and bear babes to? You’ve been very discreet regarding what you’ve said of Thorongil and how you feel about him. Nor is he like to be too forthcoming about you to a junior recruit, even if I am your brother. So – do you like Thorongil? If he were of suitable rank in the country, not just in the army, would you think of him as a potential husband? Or does the lord Denethor interest you as more than just a fellow-philosopher?”
Her face was troubled as she answered, “I don’t know, Im. Truly. I like your captain a great deal, as a friend, or a brother. He seems to be all that is virtuous, with everything to recommend him save that his family is unknown. But the way he looked at me, that day last winter when we went riding together. . .” her voice trailed off.
“What?” Imrahil rolled onto one elbow to see her better. “He did not offer you any insult, surely? I would not credit that, not of Thorongil.”
“Oh, no. Nothing of the sort. He looked at me as if. . . as if he were measuring me, weighing me against some standard. Not to my disadvantage, necessarily, but it was odd. I didn’t feel that he was considering me as a pawn to advancement, nor as a prize to be won, more as if. . . I don’t know,” she finished helplessly. “I cannot explain it any better.”
“Well, he’d only met you what, the day before? Even knowing your rank and family he would scarcely be so forward-thinking as to be contemplating the potentials for alliance, would he?”
“Why not?” said Finduilas, puzzled. “I would have done so, in his place.”
“You would? Perhaps I lack a sense of the proper political practicalities.”
In wearied tones, his sister said, “You will learn that, Im. Never fear, you will.” She lay down on the blanket beside him and squeezed his hand. “But I am glad you haven’t it yet.”
They did not speak further for a while, simply enjoying each other’s presence and the salt breeze, long-familiar. Imrahil realized anew how much he had missed his home, and began to understand how Finduilas must feel, facing the knowledge that her future would inevitably take her from so much she held dear.
I would be surprised to find that she had deliberately lied to me, but was she telling the whole truth about Thorongil? He was anxious, when Denethor came to the camp last summer, that his correspondence with her remain unknown to any save myself. Perhaps there is some understanding between them which she is unwilling or unable to share with me?
He dozed briefly, waking only when Finduilas nudged him. “I’m surprised you didn’t wake earlier and demand your luncheon – the sun is already declining from her height,” she said, setting out the food they had brought.
“Too used to having to wait while on patrol, I suppose,” Imrahil said around a mouthful of cold roast duck, trying to think of a subtle way to resume their earlier conversation and, failing, deciding to simply forge ahead. “You never answered my question before, Fin. If your choice were utterly free and unconstrained by practical questions of alliance and suitability, what would you do with your life? Whom would you wed?”
“I cannot answer that, Im. There is no purpose in thinking so. Please, leave it be. Let us talk of something else – did you see Mira dancing on mettarë?”
He allowed her to steer the conversation into gentle gossip, not wanting to destroy her pleasure in his company, but his curiosity remained undiminished.
So, she will not say whom she prefers. She speaks more of Thorongil, to be certain, and I would think him better suited to her taste, more likely to make her happy. I cannot ask him what the situation is, though. I suppose I simply have to nag at her by letter, or wait until she’s willing to speak for herself. She is right, of course, that it is pointless to think of what might be her preference had she no obligation to her House – were she not of the line of Princes of Dol Amroth, Denethor, I’ll warrant, would not have looked at her twice. Thorongil. . . I don’t know. He is kind, but not unaware of realities. Whatever may come, Finduilas will choose for the best; she always has done.
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