13. Chapter 13
Merethond started to fill. Imrahil cast his eyes around the great feast hall, remembering Mirineth's unease when he had nonchalantly admitted that the one at Dol Amroth was virtually as big. But there the resemblance ended: this hall a vast cavern of marble and stone unadorned by the banners and hangings that softened and ornamented his own. There, the devices of generations of princes marched down the walls, with the banners of the last kings of Gondor taking pride of place. Merethond was stark and bare. It would also become unbearably hot later with the number of people likely to be present. Here the windows only looked out to the stone-walled Citadel gardens, not like Dol Amroth where they opened high above a sheer cliff-face to catch the fresh sea breezes of the Bay of Belfalas. But for now, the temperature was tolerable, and the austere hall enlivened by the myriad of colours of the ladies' dresses. Always a full turnout, the weekly evening of dance and music was one of the few times when the nobles of the City could all get together to preen and gossip. And gossip they would! With an inward chuckle Imrahil scanned the crowd again to see if Aearin had arrived, so engrossed that he jumped when a hand landed on his shoulder.
"Ah, Prince Imrahil, I believe I am in your debt."
Glavror favoured him with a quick bow of his head, his portly figure not conducive to anything more servile. Imrahil quickly tried to assess from his demeanour how much the man knew of his daughter's escapade. Glavror must only have returned from Cair Andros that day, and Imrahil had not heard anything from Aearin or Mirineth. In fact, he had not seen them since he had escorted them back to the City the day before.
"You didn't think it would remain a secret did you, my lord," Glavror carried on, expertly reading the flicker of uncertainty. "Servants talk. The matter was recounted to me before I had scarce removed my cloak."
"Indeed, but I don't think it's generally known," Imrahil conceded. "You have Lady Aearin to thank that the matter was speedily put to rights." Just in case Glavror put the blame on her. But she had not known of Nethon, and Glavror certainly had.
"Hmmm..." Glavror patted his arm in far too familiar a manner, leant towards him and lowered his voice. "You must not take any notice of foolish whims, my lord. Mirineth is a good girl, but she is young and took fright at the thought of fulfilling such a high position..."
"Lord Glavror," Imrahil interrupted him sharply, and pulled his arm away, determined to put an end to this. "I am afraid there has been a misapprehension. I am not going to ask for your daughter's hand..."
"Oh, I know she behaved badly, my lord." Glavror hurried to reassure him with an ingratiating smile. "But I am sure you will forgive her silly lapse, she is generally perfectly dutiful."
Imrahil drew himself up and fixed the man with a steely stare. He'd heard enough. "I must make myself plain; I never had any intention of offering for Mirineth, even before her flight. But let me tell you, Glavror, that had I'd that intention I would have pulled back immediately on discovering that her heart belonged to another."
"Ah...," Glavror waved his had dismissively "... a silly girl's fancy!"
"A fancy that led her to leave her home and undertake a week's journey on a cart," Imrahil retorted. "If I were you, Glavror, I would accept the inevitable."
Glavror's complacency vanished abruptly, his face flushing dark red. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, poorly stifling his anger. "If she thinks I am going to let her throw herself away on a...a... nobody..."
Words failed him, and Imrahil took the opportunity to nod politely. "It's none of my business, so if you will excuse me, my sister has entered the hall."
Imrahil didn't particularly wish to talk with Finduilas, but it gave him the opportunity to slip from Glavror's clutches. He listened to his sister with half an ear, all the time searching the vast space for a glimpse of the person he did want to converse with. Finduilas prattled on about him and Denethor going to Osgilath the next day and how it would be good for them to become better acquainted. But Imrahil could only think about the now inescapable fact that he would like to be better acquainted with Aearin. The gratitude for bringing Mirineth safely back to her care had taken the form of an appreciative clasp of his hand, a smile that lit her grey eyes with a soft green radiance, and kind words which hopefully put an end to the hostilities between them. But that was all, because he'd had no chance for a private talk on their way back to the City, and had to content himself with a request for the next book in the series. It had arrived that morning and gave him the perfect excuse, were one needed, to seek out her company tonight and enjoy a dance. What with trying to attend to Finduilas and keeping watch on the crowd, Imrahil almost missed the feel of hard eyes on the back of his neck. He turned quickly, in time to see Ecthelion staring at him from under thunder-brows.
The Steward, old and frail as he was, rarely missed anything and Imrahil had no doubt his clash with Glavror had been witnessed, and understood, from the dais. Imrahil bowed to acknowledge Ecthelion, but was saved from any other communication by the auspices of the chief musician who mounted the dais to request leave to start playing. Imrahil took the opportunity to get out of range of the Steward's displeasure. After a quick word to Finduilas, assuring her he was looking forward to the next few days, and a squeeze of her hand, he disappeared into the crowd and headed to the other end of the hall.
By the time he had run the gauntlet of obsequious nobles, fluttering eyelashes and a friend of his father's whom he promised to visit before returning to Dol Amroth, the crowd had thickened even more. A knot of hopeful young nobles in the corner of the hall finally showed him the whereabouts of his quarry. But by the time he reached the spot, the musicians had struck a lively tune and Mirineth had been coaxed onto the floor. He had a glimpse of a pale face as she twirled past him. A slight smile turned her lips as she caught his eye, then she was swallowed up in the crowd. It was a moment before Imrahil realised that Aearin had not joined the dancers, but sat on one of the seats that circled the hall talking to a young man who was failing to stop his eyes from following Mirineth. How rude! Why didn't the nobcock ask Aearin to dance instead of behaving like a moon calf? Imrahil had no patience with such flummery but at least it left the way open for him.
Aearin saw him approaching and immediately got to her feet, a welcoming smile on her face. The young man gave a swift bow, muttered a few words and slunk away into the crowd.
Aearin laughed. "You gave him the perfect excuse to leave. I made a poor second to Mirineth."
Not in Imrahil's opinion. She looked cool and elegant even in a grey dress that struck him as sad-coloured compared with the vibrant garb of the other ladies. "I am glad he's such a bonehead, or you'd be whirling around the hall and I'd have to wait to dance with you."
The laughter left her face to be replaced by a grim smile. "You'll have to wait anyway, lord. With my father barely three months dead, I can hardly dance."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Imrahil sat down beside her. "I should have realised, but you seem to be coping so well."
She gave a deep sigh. "Sometimes it feels no different, as he was away so much. But then I remember that this time he will never come back and..." she shook her head, unable to say anymore.
Without thinking Imrahil grasped her hand, but she let him hold it for a second only before gently extracting it. She sniffed, and cleared the sadness from her face. "I am afraid that Lord Glavror knows of your part in Mirineth's little adventure. They had an awful row, but I am still not sure he believes you're not interested."
"I've spoken to him, he believes it now. And I consider the matter closed. Let's talk about something else."
She looked surprised. "What do you suggest?" "There are any number of things. Your books for a start. Will you let me have them copied? I can arrange it before I go home, or I could take them with me. We have fine craftsmen in Dol Amroth and my father would be interested. Especially in the one I am reading now about the intrigues of making Eärnil king."
She stared at him for a moment, slight puzzlement on her face. "Don't worry," Imrahil reassured her, "I would make sure they were kept safe and returned to you."
"Yes, yes of course, I know that, but I was just wondering why you would put yourself to so much trouble."
Why indeed, but before he could answer Mirineth reappeared, trailing a thin-faced young man whom she dismissed with little nod of her head. And although she might be dressed brightly, she was not quite in her best looks. Heavy-eyed and wan, her pretty face had lost its vivacity.
"Good evening Mirineth." Imrahil stood up and bowed.
"My lord." Mirineth flashed him a sad smile and immediately turned to Aearin. "It's no good, Aearin, I want to go home. I never wanted to come and now I have a headache."
"Oh, Mirineth, have you? What a shame." Aearin straight away got up, gathering up their shawls. Heartache more like! But Imrahil said nothing, stifling a sigh: his luck was out again. Then a smile twitched his lips – but maybe not, all situations should be turned to advantage. He waited until Aearin had put a shawl around Mirineth's shoulders.
"Perhaps you will allow me to accompany you, as I imagine Lord Glavror will not be leaving."
Aearin's eyes flew to his face. "There's no need..."
"There's every need. It's always lively in the City when there is festivity in Merethrond." It was true –stalls appeared down the main way, offering all kinds of sweetmeats and refreshments to the nobles returning to their homes. And this of course attracted other citizens who made their own entertainment. The ladies would likely be perfectly safe, especially this early in the evening, but it gave him a good excuse to accompany them and he had no interest in dancing if Aearin wasn't going to be there. He bowed. "I'll be happy to go with you."
Aearin accepted his escort with no more protest, Mirineth with her head down obviously didn't care one way or the other. Even the beautiful evening with the peaks of the Ephel Dúath fired by a flaming sun failed to invoke any interest. Imrahil made a few comments to try and lift her out of her gloom, but Aearin shook her head and he gave up. Nothing much happening on the Sixth Level, but once they reached the Fifth there were many more people about. Stalls had been erected further down and coloured lanterns hung on the poles that bordered the main way. The tempting smell of gingerbread wafted up, as did the haunting notes of a flute. Imrahil tried hard to think of a way of detaching Aearin, as in another few minutes she would be gone into the house. But he was saved from coming up with some wild scheme by Mirineth herself, who on reaching her door turned to Aearin with a despondent look on her face.
"There's no need for your evening to be spoilt, Aearin. Go back to the hall with the Prince. It's early yet."
"But Mirineth," Aearin protested, "if you have a headache I can make you a tisane."
"No!" Mirineth shook her head decisively and rapped on the door. "I want to be alone."
Aearin started to remonstrate, but taking his opportunity, Imrahil put his hand on her arm. "Perhaps she's better left. Come on, I imagine you could do with a little relaxation."
The door opened, and Aearin hesitated, but Imrahil made up her mind for her by holding on tight. With a swift smile Mirineth disappeared inside, and the door shut again.
Aearin stared at it for a moment and then cast him a fuming look. "I remember saying before that I am not one of your vassals. You have an overbearing way with you, my lord."
"It must come from my generations of noble ancestors; something else you accused me of, if I remember rightly," Imrahil remarked with a grin.
"I didn't accuse you of that..," she started to say, but gave up when he grinned more. Instead she took a calming breath. "Anyway, I don't want to return to the hall. I only went to chaperone Mirineth, there's no point otherwise as I can't dance."
"No, I agree, it would be a complete waste of time as it's difficult to hold a conversation with the noise up there." What was more, he would no doubt attract amused attention from his men and undesirable attention from Ecthelion and Denethor, not to mention Finduilas. Sergion would wonder what had happen to him, but would be unlikely to be concerned. Imrahil started to steer her towards the road. "Far better to enjoy the evening in the City, listening to the music and the storytellers."
"I ought not to leave Mirineth," she made a last protest, looking back at the closed door.
"Yes, you should. It's something she needs to sort out for herself. I told her she must stand up to her father. I can think of nothing worse than to be leg-shackled to someone for whom you have not the slightest affection. Especially if one's heart is already given to another."
Aearin looked up at him surprised, but he only smiled and gestured down the street. "Forget Mirineth for a while; let's see what there is to entertain us." The crowd had thickened in the few moments they had been arguing, and within fifty yards the stalls started. Imrahil handed over a coin to a fat man supervising one and picked up a bag of honeyed almonds. He didn't relish many sweetmeats, but had a taste for almonds.
"Do you like these, or shall I get something else?" he asked Aearin. She delved her fingers into the bag.
"No, these are one of my favourites. But I also like the lavender cakes they often sell."
"We'll look out for them. But they're a bit scented for my taste."
"Not normal fare for a warrior, I imagine." Imrahil pulled a face. "No. It's usually dried meat, twice-baked bread and rancid cheese."
"Now I don't believe that!" "Well, only sometimes," Imrahil admitted, grinning. "If we didn't feed our soldiers properly, they wouldn't be able to fight."
"That's what my father used to say...oh, look, there's a story-teller. Can we listen for a moment?"
"Of course." She smiled up at him gratefully, looking so lovely that his breath caught in his throat. Within minutes of letting go her responsibilities, how much more alive she seemed to be.
"I do enjoy nights like this," she confided as they eased their way into the group of people clustered around the story-teller. "Mirineth and I came out for a short while a few weeks ago, but of course Glavror sent a servant with us and he was afraid to let us mingle with the crowds too much."
Imrahil laughed, and winked at her. "Keep close and you'll be perfectly safe."
Her lips twitched. "I am sure I will...listen!" she clutched at his arm, "I heard your name mentioned." Imrahil listened, laughter bubbling up inside of him. The story-teller, a thin man with protruding eyes that he flicked from one listener to the other with lightening speed, was relating the beginnings of the raid on Umbar. His face took on a mask of horror as he recounted the tale of a terrifying climb up a sheer cliff and the assault on a heavily armed fortress.
"You never said it was that bad," Aearin whispered.
Imrahil tried to keep a straight face. "It was terrible; all of us were shaking in our boots climbing that cliff face. And we were outnumbered twenty to one, but I didn't like to say before lest you accuse me of boasting."
Aearin chuckled. "I don't believe you."
"Very wise."Imrahil lifted his eyebrows, smiling at her. "Come on, I can't listen to any more of this." The story-teller had started on the sail into the harbour with the wind howling and the waves twenty foot high. Imrahil shook his head, disbelieving. "We would have capsized in a trice in those squid-boats."
They strolled further down the road, stopping for a while to listen to a fiddler playing a foot-tapping tune. A few couples started dancing a lively jig, the crowd moving back to give them space. They swirled around, the girl's full skirts twirling like handfuls of coloured ribbons as the pace of the music increased. "It's a pity you're unable to dance," Imrahil murmured in Aearin's ear.
"You know you're safe saying that," Aearin retorted with a laugh. "I can't imagine you'd want to dance in the street."
Actually he'd dance with her anywhere if it meant he could slip his arms round her trim waist, but better not say that. "Perhaps when you get to know me a bit better you'll imagine differently."
She cast him a surprised look. Imrahil laughed and took her hand. "There's bound to be other entertainment further down."
"Yes, and the further down you go, the livelier it will get," she agreed.
"Possibly, but it's usually more interesting." Imrahil stood on tip-toe for a moment looking over the wall as his eyes caught something down below. "There are fire-eaters down on the next level."
"Oh, are there!" Aearin exclaimed. "I do love watching them, especially now when the sun has gone."
"Then that's what we will do," Imrahil said, enjoying her excitement. "But first I must arm myself with a drink. I can smell punch, so there must be a stall around somewhere. Do you drink that, or shall I find you some plain wine?"
"No, I like punch as long as it's not too much. And it's just the thing on a night like this." The punch seller was doing a brisk trade, the aroma of wine, fruit and spices never failing to titillate the taste buds. The cheery man leaned over a copper pot perched on a small brazier, stirring his brew happily. Imrahil ordered a mug for Aearin and a large tankard for himself. The punch was ladled in, accompanied by good-natured banter.
"Just the thing to set you up for the night, lord." The vendor winked at him.
Imrahil laughed; luckily Aearin's attention was taken by the next stall which held an assortment of cakes.
"They've got lavender cakes." She looked up at him expectantly as he passed her the mug of punch. "I will need something if I am going to drink all this." Imrahil bought some lavender cakes and some buns dotted with caraway seeds of which he was particularly fond. He looked around. "Now we need somewhere to sit where we can enjoy our feast and watch the fire-eaters."
As the road turned a corner the wall lowered and Imrahil saw they were just above the entertainment. "It's crowded down there, would you be happy to sit on the wall if I lift you up?"
When she nodded, he put both their drinks and the cakes on the wall and grasped her firmly around the waist. He had got his wish without the dancing, and revelled in the feel of the warm, firm flesh he could feel beneath the thin gown. Her face coloured slightly, but she said nothing and in a moment he had deposited her on the stone wall. "If I hold on to you can you swing your legs over?" Again she nodded, and wrapping her skirt tightly around her lower limbs, swung herself so she could sit and watch the fire-eaters. Imrahil put a foot on a protruding stone and heaved himself up. The wall still held the warmth of the day and, with the top worn smooth from years of weathering, it made a comfortable seat. Once up, he passed Aearin her mug and handed her a lavender cake. She took it from him distractedly, her attention focused on the colourful scene below.
Two men stood in the centre of the open space; their torsos were bare and their brown skin, ornamented by traceries of blue and red dye, gleamed in the fire-light. Together they swung and tossed the lighted torches and the ribbon of sparks glittering against the black of the night sky reminded Imrahil of the firing of the Corsairs' ships. Sipping her drink and taking an occasional bit of cake, Aearin watched entranced as the flames licked their bodies and disappeared between blackened lips. Imrahil took a gulp of his own punch, the potent liquid warming him all the way down to his stomach. The spectacle unfolded beneath them, but his eyes were drawn to the woman beside him, rather than what was going on below. Absorbed by the brilliant display, Aearin was unaware of his scrutiny. Her lips were parted – red and luscious, they really were the most kissable ones he'd been close to for a long time.
"How do they do it?" she whispered, turning to him after a while.
"I imagine they coat their skin with some unguent. We have many who visit Dol Amroth, but I have never quite fathomed their secrets."
"Is Dol Amroth anything like Minas Tirith?" she enquired. "We don't really hear much about it and it was one place my father never visited."
"Well, the city itself is smaller of course, and not built in the same way. It clings to the top of a cliff and virtually all the main windows of the Palace look out to sea. Many people work for us in one way or the other, be they soldiers, farmers or fishermen. The most of the land of Belfalas is ceded to my family, but I hope we are fair landlords."
"I am sure you are." Aearin smiled at him, which brought a lovely sparkle to her eyes. Imrahil laughed to cover the surge of desire that took him unawares. "It works two ways; if we didn't treat them right they wouldn't fight for us. Look," he said pointing to the display below, "I think we are reaching the highlight of the show."
The space, except for one brazier, had gone into complete darkness and a hush fell on the crowd. With a whoosh the scene erupted like a firestorm, whirling colours of light and flame streaking from man to man as they jumped and tumbled across the stone. Imrahil acknowledged that it was one of the best performances he had seen and they certainly deserved the thunderous applause that echoed around the high wall.
The lanterns were lit again and a troupe of mummers filed into the space. This time, rather than listen to an embellished account of the raid on the corsair ships, Imrahil was able to watch a stylised re-enactment. But Aearin was so obviously enjoying it, shamelessly laughing at the portrayal of the corsairs fleeing from angry Gondorians, that he didn't like to suggest they move on. They watched until the end, when the brazier came into use to fire the ships.
All the cakes and the punch had gone, and the fire-eaters were preparing to start their routine again. Aearin gave a sigh of contentment. "That was fun, but I think I had better return now. I would prefer to be there when Lord Glavror gets back."
The disappointment of the evening coming to an end was lessened by the further moment of intimacy as Imrahil lifted her down. She dropped her eyes from his gaze, but not before he had seen how alive they were, so different from the hostility of their first encounters. And on the way up the hill they continued their conversation on Dol Amroth and she told him of some of the campaigns her father and brother had been involved in. But when they reached the fifth level, her easy chatter tailed off and Imrahil felt she had withdrawn again. Whether she had remembered her responsibilities, or it was something else, he didn't know. In a moment he was going to have to say farewell for at least a week, and he had done no more than hold her arm. Not a satisfactory conclusion to such a wonderful evening. Just one kiss would be good. As they approached the house, he eyed a darkened ally longingly, but there were too many people about to even risk the chastest of kisses here, even if she allowed it.
"I shall be off to Osgiliath in the morning, but aim to be back by the end of next week. Can I hope you will give me some of your time then, albeit dancing is forbidden to you?"
She took a moment to reply and then her breath came fast. "Prince Imrahil, I have enjoyed this evening. But I can't imagine it will be repeated."
Imrahil frowned. "Why not? I plan to be staying in the City for a few weeks." At least he had just made a plan that very evening.
She looked him squarely in the face. "Men and women to not normally keep company like this."
Imrahil shrugged. "I don't see why not."
"Tell me, lord, what exactly do you want of me?"
Imrahil laughed, her confused expression delighting him. That, and the punch, made him say flippantly. "Right now I can think of nothing nicer than pulling you down that dark alley," he jerked his head to the left, "and kissing you senseless." He grinned and stroked the back of his finger down her blushing cheek. "And after that I would like..."
"How dare you!" Eyes flaming, she put both hands on his chest and pushed. Caught off balance, he tripped on the cobbles. "I might have few protectors," she stormed, "but that does not mean I am fair game for the likes of you."
"Aearin, I did not mean what you are thinking at all!"
"Then what did you mean?" she hissed, rapping sharply on the door. "That you would kiss me senseless and then marry me?"
"Aearin I..." He faltered.
She laughed scornfully at his hesitation.
That moment a heavy tread approached. Imrahil swung around.
"Prince Imrahil?" Glavror sounded both surprised and angry. "The Prince was good enough to escort me home, lord."
Aearin answered through clenched teeth before he could respond.
The door opened at that moment and she slipped quickly inside, only turning her head to cast him a fuming glance. "I doubt you will have reason to call again, my lord. Goodnight!"
"Where's my daughter?" Glavror looked around as if he expected her to be hiding from him.
"Lady Mirineth retired early with a headache," Imrahil managed to say through his anger. "Now excuse me," he nodded to Glavror, ignoring the man's affronted mien. "I have to be away early in the morning."
He left Glavror gazing after him, feeling that the sooner he got away from here the better. Imrahil took the steps two at a time, the physical effort dulling his fury. Halfway up he realised how he must have sounded. Damn it! What a dolt! None of his previous dealings with women had caused so much trouble. But the urge to kiss her – again and again – had been overwhelming. Sergion had been right: Aearin was not the kind to dally with. But he didn't want to dally with her, so what did he want?
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.