"Imrahil, it is past time that we spoke of serious matters," Adrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth told his youngest child and only son. "Sit down, lad."
Imrahil, his handsome head cocked quizzically to one side, seated himself in the chair on the other side of the desk, and settled back into it, careful of his injured shoulder. Adrahil, gazing upon the pristine white sling that held his son's arm immobile, and seeing the bulge of bandages beneath the tunic, felt a renewed pang of fear. If the sword thrust had been just a bit lower, and pierced the lung, or over to the center more, through the heart or throat.......He swallowed hard, sighed, and decided to come straight to the point.
"Imrahil, for over twenty generations our family has held this land in trust, serving and protecting its people. Though some of our ancestors died in battle doing so, there has always been an heir to take up the burden and the throne. There is no desire in me to be the last Prince of Dol Amroth. Therefore, though it pains me to do so, I must insist that you not put to sea or risk yourself in battle again, until such time as you have an heir of your body to succeed you. I will order you to remain in Dol Amroth, if I must."
Imrahil started to rise up out of the chair in protest, grimaced, thought better of it and settled back, frowning. "But Father, I am pushing the raiders back! To cage me here now--it would undo all the work that has gone before!" Adrahil shook his head in refusal.
"I have captains aplenty who can take up where you left off, Imri--and some of them, believe it or not, are more capable on the sea than you are." Imrahil's frown deepened. "But I have only one heir, and him I will not risk until I have more than one, out of both love for him and duty to my people. Our bloodline hangs by but a thread, my son, and you dangle from the end of it. Spin yourself a proper rope, and you may imperil your life as you please."
"And has my lord father arranged a marriage for me? Is this what you have summoned me here this day to say?" The Heir to Dol Amroth's expression was one of suppressed anger, and his voice decidedly chilly of a sudden, but Adrahil, though he loved his son dearly, was a ruling prince who did not suffer his authority to be challenged.
"I summoned you here to say what I just said, and you may wipe that frown off your face and keep a civil tone when you address me!" Adrahil had seldom chastised his children and the sharpness of the unaccustomed rebuke shocked Imrahil into silence. The Prince shoved a sheet of paper across the desk to his son, who took it up slowly.
"This is a list of young women of good family, both within the principality and from other parts of Gondor. I would find any young lady upon this list to be an acceptable bride. I promised you a long time ago that I would not force you into a marriage of policy, that I would allow you to marry for love as I had been permitted to do. I do not take that promise back--I am simply giving you a time limit in which to find someone. And I do not say you must marry a young woman on this list--it is merely suggested as a starting point. If you are interested in some sort of foreign alliance instead, then let me know, and I will start making arrangements. Your heart may warm towards some other lady not on the list--unless she is totally unsuitable, I will in all likelihood give my blessing for that union as well. At this point, I would probably give my blessing even if you wished to marry a fisherman's daughter!"
"You have seen thirty winters now, Imri, and I despair of you ever settling down! I have been patient long enough, and foolishly indulgent. I have let you run up and down the coast with Andra, escaping any instruction in governance. I have paid your brothel bills without complaint and turned a blind eye to your other.... liaisons.....in the hope that you would eventually weary of this wild life of yours. But though you have not yet wearied of it, I have. So I am giving you an ultimatum."
"You have a year from this day to find a wife for yourself. For, if one year from now, you have not selected a young woman to be your bride, I will select one for you and see you wed if you have to come before the witnesses bound and at the point of a sword. Do we understand one another?"
"Yes, my lord, we do," his son responded stiffly, as he rose carefully from his chair. "Will that be all? Have I your leave to depart?"
"You do." Imrahil's bow was also somewhat stiff, and Adrahil suspected that had nothing to do with his injury. After he had departed, the Prince dropped his head into his hands. He had expected that this decision would put him at odds with his son, and as he was a man who loved his children well, the discord pained him deeply. But the needs of Dol Amroth took precedence over Imrahil's wishes. He is a clever fellow, Adrahil reassured himself somewhat desperately. A year is a long time. He will find a woman he can love.
What Imrahil most immediately found was two mugs of beer in the kitchens, whereupon he then made his way to Andrahar's room. Andrahar, who had been more severely wounded than his lord, had been commanded by the healers to lie abed for a week yet. As he was not the sort of person who enjoyed a good book, he was acutely bored and very glad to see both Imrahil and the beer.
"You are a prince among princes!" he declared, his grin shining whitely against his tanned face. Imrahil handed him the tankard, and when he shifted somewhat uncomfortably, adjusted some of the pillows propping his wounded leg.
"I wonder if I should even be giving you this," Imrahil commented. "I am not sure that the healers would approve."
"I care not if they do!" declared Andrahar. "If they protest, I will tell them it was for medicinal purposes! Though admittedly, the dosage is a bit low......"
"Forgive me." The Prince indicated his injured shoulder. "I fear I was not up to the task of bringing you the whole keg."
"That is too bad. I would prefer to be insensible for the rest of the week." He gave Imrahil a keen look. "What ails you?" Imrahil dragged a chair over and seated himself, resting elbows on knees and sipping from his tankard disconsolately.
"Father forbids me the sea or to ride to war upon land until I wed and make an heir." Setting his beer on the floor, he opened his belt pouch and pulled the list out. "He has given me a list of potential brides, and says that if I do not choose one within a year's time, then he will make the decision for me and force me to wed." Andrahar took the list from him, and surveyed it casually.
"Finally reined you in, has he? It doesn't surprise me after this last battle, Imri. You scared him half to death. You terrified me, while it was happening. I went down, and they were still coming, and my last thought was fear that I had failed you."
"You could never do that, Andra," Imrahil replied warmly, remembering how fiercely Andrahar had fought. The enemy had not been able to get at him until Andrahar had fallen insensible, his blood pouring over the planks. He was both relieved and amazed that his friend had survived at all. Picking his beer up once more, he took a deep draught.
"So....what will you do now?" Andrahar asked curiously.
"The sooner wed, the sooner free. I suppose I will start working my way down the list, and see if any of these girls suit me. Father says that I do not have to marry someone on the list, but he has done the work of sorting through them for me, so it seems sensible to start with these young ladies." He gave his bodyguard a fond look. "I shall probably begin tomorrow, Andra, but fear not, I promise I will take an appropriate escort. You can join me when you are able." Andrahar settled back against his pillows with a smile.
"And tonight? Will tonight find you within the castle walls, the dutiful son?" The Heir to Dol Amroth gave him a rakehell grin.
"Father complained of my brothel bills today. He has seen nothing yet! If I am to lose my liberty trammeled in the bonds of matrimony, I intend to enjoy my freedom while I may. It's the Fairweather for me tonight!"
Later that night, he lay upon the overstuffed bed in the best suite of the Fairweather, replete after an excellent meal, a bottle of the finest Dorwinion Red, and the clever ministrations of Wilwarin, his usual partner of choice. She had managed to give him a great deal of intense pleasure with very little physical exertion on his part, and the wine had dulled the pain of his wound, so he was in a more charitable frame of mind.
"I suppose it probably is time I started a family," he conceded, toying idly with the heavy gold fall of Wilwarin's hair. "Will you miss me when I come to you no longer, my sweet?"
Wilwarin chuckled throatily. "I will not have to say good-bye to you, Imrahil. You have not yet bedded a proper lady. A time or two of that, and your head will be upon my pillow again."
"Think you so?"
"Know I so! The finest lords of Belfalas, wed to the finest ladies, seek my bed in droves! The blood of Numenor runs cold in the hearts of its most exalted women. It runs cold in their other parts as well, if you take my meaning." Imrahil threw his head back and laughed, and Wilwarin's clever hands began roaming over him once more.
"Whoever she be, she will not be woman enough for you, my lusty, fair Imrahil. You and I will be sharing joy and pleasure for many years yet."
The following day, Imrahil set forth upon his quest for a bride, having arranged his candidates in geographical order, so that his time would be spent more efficiently. Word spread like wildfire through Belfalas that Imrahil the Fair sought a wife, and there followed two months of overly rich state dinners, uncomfortable interviews with nervous, giggling girls, and the eternal, intense scrutiny of hopeful parents.
After a time, Imrahil began to feel like the prince in one of the oldest tales of his people, who had seen a maiden fair as elven kind appear mysteriously at the revels in his palace one night, only to vanish equally mysteriously leaving nothing but a slipper as proof of her presence. Enchanted, he had sought long for her with little hope, only to find a lowly goose girl fit the shoe. Imrahil had no such convenient sign to indicate that his choice was the correct one, but he began to feel that a goose girl would have been preferable to some of the ladies upon his father's list.
There was the young lady unfortunately prone to flatulence. The rather portly young woman who appeared more enthralled at the idea of gaining access to Dol Amroth's larders than in being his wife. The slender, overly intense young maid who fancied herself Queen Beruthiel come again and as a consequence, kept cats. A lot of cats.......And a fair number of reasonably attractive, reasonably pleasant young women, all of whom left him totally unmoved.
At the end of eight weeks, he had worked through half of his father's list, all of the ladies of good birth currently not at court who lived within reasonable distance of Dol Amroth, without having found a single potential mate. Deciding that he deserved a respite before investigating the candidates in the area about Minas Tirith, he returned home--and was pleasantly surprised to find Andrahar recovered enough to greet him at the gate of the City, having heard the trumpets announcing his arrival. Dismissing his escort, he rode knee to knee with his friend through the sunset gilded streets, recounting his adventures in a manner which caused Andra to laugh uproariously.
"It would seem that you are making good time, working your way through the list," he noted at last, wiping his eyes after the tale of 'Queen Beruthiel'.
"Indeed, there are none of the names in Western Gondor I have not investigated," Imrahil agreed. "And the ones that are here at court I know well enough already."
"Will we be traveling to Minas Tirith then? When need I be ready?" The prince groaned.
"Not for at least a week. I know that winter is drawing in, but I've spent the last two months in the saddle, and cannot face the idea of that ride immediately. Though it would be good to see Finduilas and the boys again. I imagine that little Faramir is walking now. And Boromir--gracious, he is seven if he is a day! More than old enough for his first pony. I shall have to see to that if Denethor has not." Though he seldom saw them, Imrahil genuinely enjoyed playing uncle to his two young nephews.
They were riding now on the street that led up to the gate of the castle itself. It was lined with the grand houses of the nobility, and as they passed by, Imrahil caught more than one glimpse of a young face at the window, watching them. He sighed. It did not take the precognitive gift of his bloodline to know that evening court was going to be a trial of endurance.
His prediction proved to be correct. Dinner, and the dancing that came afterward in celebration of his return were fraught with females set upon catching his eye. He wondered wryly if there was a single bolt of silk, velvet or brocade left unclaimed and uncut in the city. His entrance into the marriage market had provided quite the boost to the local economy--at least as far as the dressmakers and jewelers were concerned.
Adrahil had greeted him most cordially, obviously eager to mend their differences, and in truth, Imrahil loved his father too well to hold a grudge for any length of time. The progress report he was able to give the Prince, while inconclusive in result, spoke so greatly of earnest effort that he was able to pleasantly bask in a feeling of virtue the whole evening. Deciding to continue his habit of ruthless efficiency in romance, he socialized with most of the young women in the room that night, and immediately struck half of them off the list as people he could never unite himself with. That list was melting away like snowcaps on the Ered Nimrais in Spring, and during one rather painful dance with a very clumsy and mortified young woman, he entertained himself by imagining what his father would do were he to introduce Wilwarin as his intended bride. The resulting amusement almost made him forget the pain in his trampled feet.
Eventually, virtue became wearisome, the rigors of his long ride caught up with him and he excused himself from the festivities, removing his dress tunic as soon as he'd left the hall, and slinging it over his shoulder. He decided to stop by his father's library on his way up to bed, to see if he could find something to read for a while before turning in. But instead of a book, he found another opportunity to work on the list a bit further.
Nimrien daughter of Ohtar had become Prince Adrahil's ward at the tender age of six, her mother and father both perishing when their vessel foundered during a freak storm on what should have been a routine return from a business trip to Minas Tirith. Ohtar, one of Adrahil's close friends, was a man of excellent pedigree but little property, having been a fourth son of an already impoverished line. A proud man, he had served as a captain in the Swan Knights until he received a crippling wound in a skirmish with the Haradrim that ended his career as a warrior, whereupon he had continued to earn his way as Adrahil's steward.
Upon his death, his unmarried sister Tirathiel had come from Minas Tirith to care for the heartbroken young girl. Nimrien had grown up within the castle, treated as family by the Prince. Ten years younger than Finduilas, she adored the Princess of Dol Amroth as a glamorous older sister; five years younger than Imrahil, she had become the pesky younger sibling who wanted to follow her grand, brave big brother everywhere. Imrahil smiled at the memory of long summer days spent along the shore, Nimrien clad in a pair of his outgrown breeches, wading in the surf and searching for shells.
Over the years, the gawky girl had turned into a self-possessed young woman, who, despite the fact that the Lord of Dol Amroth would have gladly taken care of her, had been determined to make her own way. She had apprenticed herself to a bookbinder for a number of years, learning how to bind and preserve books, and when her training was complete, had applied to Adrahil for a job maintaining and restoring his library. The Prince, impressed with her initiative, agreed, and paid her a stipend that enabled her to live comfortably with her aunt in a small house of her own with an attached garden hard by the castle walls.
Tirathiel too, had helped with the library, being a renowned scholar, and having a fine copying hand. After the death of the Princess, her duties had expanded, and she had become Adrahil's chatelaine and hostess. Adrahil's care of Ohtar's family had been repaid many times over the years, for Tirathiel and Nimrien were fiercely devoted to him, doing much to make his life easier--certainly more, Imrahil admitted to himself in his rare moments of honest self-examination, than he had.
And though she had always been about, even underfoot when younger, and he had often conversed with her most enjoyably about many subjects, Imrahil had never thought of Nimrien as aught but a sister. Until now, when he looked upon her with eyes that had become accustomed over the last few weeks to assessing young women as potential wives--and realized that the solution to his problem had been in Dol Amroth the whole time.
Not only is she on Father's list,he thought gleefully, but she is near a daughter to him already! She is of the best blood, she is respected at court, she is wise, industrious and not uncomely. She knows me already, and likes me well enough. We could be wed within the month, and have an heir by early autumn. And I would be free to sail again.....
"Were you looking for something, Imrahil?" Nimrien inquired, turning from where she had been shelving a book to look at him curiously. You, my lady, he mused silently, though of course he said nothing of the kind aloud. Her dress of dark plum wool was unornamented, but a good foil for her cloudy dark hair and eyes that seemed to have the faintest tinge of purple to their grey, and it clung to her slender curves in a most becoming manner. White linen over sleeves protected the sleeves of her dress, and her hair was twisted back from her face in an impromptu knot, by which Imrahil deduced she was actually working.
"I was looking for something to read before bed. Whatever are you doing working so late, lady? Why are you not down in the hall dancing with the rest?"
"You know that I do not care for court affairs, Imrahil," she replied. "Besides, this new shipment of books came in today. I wanted to place them into the collection tonight so that I could take the day off tomorrow. It looks to be one of the last warm, pleasant days, and I want to put my garden to bed for the winter."
"Is there anything there I might like to read?" She came back over to the desk, sorted through the stack of books there, pristine in fresh bindings of Dol Amroth blue, and handed him one.
"Here. A commentary and overview of the wars with the Easterlings. You have not read this particular author, have you?" He examined the title page, leafed through the first chapter quickly, and shook his head.
"No, lady, I have not. My thanks."
"You are welcome." She picked up another book and returned to the shelves to place it. Imrahil cocked a hip up on the desk and watched her. The book's proper home was apparently upon a high shelf, and she had to stretch to reach it, for Nimrien was short for a woman of pure Numenorean blood. Imrahil quite enjoyed the view of trim ankles exposed when she finally managed to shelve it. Turning back around, she discovered him still there, watching her, and her cheeks flushed. In an irritated voice, she asked, "Did you require anything else, my lord?"
"No, I just wished to pass the time with you for a bit. I have not seen you in quite a while."
Nimrien returned to the desk for another book. "That is hardly my fault," she declared, her voice still tart. "I certainly have not gone anywhere." Imrahil inclined his head to her.
"That is true. I apologize for my neglect." He reached for the topmost book on the pile just as she did, saw the glare she gave him, and thought better of it, sitting back, assuming a fearful expression, and raising his hands with exaggerated slowness. The corner of her mouth, slightly too wide for beauty but definitely of great sensual possibility, twitched upward. "I take it you have heard of my father's ultimatum?" he asked. Nimrien laughed aloud.
"The ultimatum, and the list? Most definitely. It is all that anyone talks about around here any more. 'Are you on the list?' 'Is she on the list?' 'Was she crossed off the list?' 'Why would the Prince put HER on the list?' And so forth and so on."
"You are on the list."
"I know that. And you may cross me off of it."
"Because I do not wish to be the Princess of Dol Amroth. I do not care for the silliness of court life. You know that."
Taken aback at this sudden roadblock in his very neat plan, Imrahil blurted, "But you could have anything you wanted!"
"I already have everything I need."
"Nimrien, I would rather marry someone I know well, like you, than a complete stranger! Are we not friends?"
"Of course we are friends, Imrahil." She picked up the book, and moved to another section of the shelves to put it away. "I simply do not wish to be your wife. If you were actually asking, of course."
"I....suppose that I was."
"Then the answer is no."
"Because you do not wish to be the Princess of Dol Amroth, or because you do not wish to be my wife?"
"Will you tell me why?"
"No, for if I do, then I fear that we will not even be friends." She shelved the book, and returned for another, but Imrahil halted her with a hand upon her arm. They were almost eye to eye with him perching upon the desk, and he gave her one of his most charming, earnest looks.
"I should like to think that our friendship would survive a little discussion," he coaxed, knowing well his powers of persuasion, and hoping that if he could get her talking, he could bring her around to his point of view. "If you have some reservations about being wed to me, I should like to hear what they are."
Nimrien, however, seemed immune to his charms. She pulled herself from his grasp, and gave him an almost grim look.
"Very well then, since you have asked for the truth, I will give it to you--at least the truth as I see it. But you will not like what I have to say. I do not wish to wed you because I do not want to be merely a convenience to the man I marry. I do not wish to be the Princess of Dol Amroth if it means that I must remain here, do your duty for you and administer your realm while you gallivant all over sea and land in search of adventure. And I most particularly do not want to be your wife if it means that I must be faithful to you alone, whilst you dally with whores and come to me with their scent still upon you when you need another heir." Stunned, Imrahil stared at her as she resumed the task he had interrupted, and selected the next book.
"I love you, Imrahil, you were like a brother to me," she continued. "I adored and idolized you when you were a boy protecting me from bullies. But you have not grown into the man you could and should have been. You are self-absorbed, selfish, lecherous and vain. You shirk your duties to your realm, and cause your father heartache and pain when you should be his chiefest help. If I marry at all, it will be to a man of honor."
"I am a man of honor, lady!" Imrahil protested angrily. "I have spent the last ten years risking my life to keep Dol Amroth safe! How dare you say I am not honorable!"
"You have spent the last ten years risking your life because you would rather do that than apply yourself to the more boring aspects of governance, Imrahil," Nimrien replied sharply, clasping the book to her chest. "How many courts have you sat upon in judgement in during the last ten years? Have you ever overseen the collection of the taxes that pay for your clothes and horses and whores? Do you even understand where the money comes from? How often have you gone out among the common folk and listened to their concerns? Since your mother died, and Finduilas wed, your father has become increasingly burdened and lonely, and you pay no heed. Prince Adrahil has been as a father to me since my own died, and I love him dearly. That you treat him so makes me very angry, and for that reason as well, I would not marry you!"
"It is strange that you are the only person who appears to feel this way," Imrahil declared icily. "No one else thinks I am remiss in my duty! The other young ladies I have talked to, and their families, think I am a most excellent fellow!"
"Then wed one of them, and I wish you joy of her! I wish her joy too, though she is not likely to get it, poor girl! But how likely is it that they, or their fathers, would dare to take you to task, even if they did feel that you were shirking? And they may very well not--warriors are well thought of. I judge by a different standard, I guess." Nimrien scrubbed at her eyes suddenly with her free hand. "Valar! I swore to myself I would never speak of this to you! No sense marring what we have speaking of something that cannot be mended! I give you a good night, my lord!" And she laid the book down, curtseyed and fled the room, leaving a rather shocked Imrahil behind.
In the silence after her hasty departure, the Heir of Dol Amroth moved around the desk and sank into the chair there. Rummaging idly through the stack of new books, he pondered her words. You have not grown into the man you could and should have been. You are self-absorbed, selfish, lecherous and vain. They struck him to the heart, but in a way that was not entirely bad, for they lanced straight to the place deep inside of him where, for the last several years, he had been repressing the knowledge that he was in fact, shirking his duty, laying it bare to the light at last. He suddenly understood that he had been trying to assuage his guilt and prove his worth with increasingly bolder and more dangerous forays against pirates and corsairs, and that his last battle had been foolhardy in the extreme, his foe having a larger vessel and a huge crew of cutthroats. He had been victorious, but that victory had nearly cost him his life and Andrahar's. It had certainly cost the lives of a large number of his crew, men who had died, he now realized with dawning horror, just so that he might feel better about himself..
She sees me clear,he said to himself bleakly, where no one else does. She sees the disappointment that I truly am. He thought back over the negotiations of the last several weeks, the things that fathers had offered him to consider their daughters; ships, gold, grain, wine, lands, a fine Rohirric stallion (that one had sorely tempted him). None of those people thought the less of him--on the other hand, none of them thought he could be any more than what he already was. Only Nimrien had dared to confront him with what he had become, when even his own father had been silent. A thought occurred to him then, with crystal clarity.
She brings with her no dowry but the truth.And what commodity was more precious to a prince, surrounded by sycophants as men of power always were? The quiet voice of reason that he possessed but seldom listened to spoke suddenly. It spoke of the possibility of love, of great joy. It told him that he had found the thing he had been searching for for the last two months. He thought of her wild cloud of hair, her nose with the bump on the bridge of it, the purple shadows in her eyes, the slender grace of her figure and the sweetness of her voice, and a strange new ache arose beneath his breastbone. His mouth curving up into a sad smile, he picked up the book she'd selected for him, and left the library.