The brandy was the best, of course, nothing but the best for him, and it burned pure fruit fire down his throat to the pit of his stomach, warring with the chill around his heart. The sepulcher had been icy and there had been too many folk saying far too many words, seeking to bestow some crumb of comfort, trying to make some sense of the death too young of yet another much-loved lady of Dol Amroth. Tears a-plenty had been shed there, by his own children and by other folk, yet he could not do his grieving in that place--even with Finduilas' bier there to compound his sorrow.

And in truth, at least part of the problem was that much of his grieving was already done. The first of it had come with shocked disbelief when the physicians had told him there was nothing further they could do for his lady. Another part had come when even Gildor had said that her illness had been diagnosed too late, that he had no healers that could avail her, and that she would not survive a trip north to Imladris. Most of the rest had come over the last few months, as the canker had eaten her from inside, raising a wall of pain and death between them, who had always been so close to each other.

He had felt so helpless for so long, seeking desperately for cures that always turned out to be useless, unable in the end to even insure her comfort, that now what he primarily felt was numb. Numb and horrified that in his weary defeat, deprived of what he had always thought of as a legendary love, what he felt was not so much grief as simple relief that she was not in pain anymore and could not be hurt any further. And that he would not be asked to suffer further with her.

Knocking back another big gulp of the brandy, he regarded the bottle with brooding approval. There had been a time when drink had been the answer to many of his nagging insecurities, and though it was years in the past, he had remembered the way of liquid oblivion the other night, after she had died in his arms. Since then, he had been forced to be stalwart and strong and comforting to his bereft children, but he thought that perhaps tonight, with the funeral service and feast finally over, he might indulge himself once more.....

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. It cracked open, and a slender shadow stood limned in the light from the hallway.

"Father?" Elphir, his eldest, stepped hesitantly into the dark room, noticing that the only light came from the hearth fire, and that his father was holding a glass.

"What is it, lad?" he asked a bit hoarsely, noting how the boy, now just sixteen, had come finally into the coltish phase of growth, all elbows and angles and bones, his slenderness accentuated even more by the black clothing he wore.

"Are you all right?"

"I am well enough, Elphir." The boy frowned slightly, looking at the glass.

"You're not going to get drunk again are you?" His voice held all the self-righteous disapproval of the adolescent.

"Why should it matter to you if I do?" Resentment at his son's cheek colored his tone. "You will be asleep soon enough anyway." Elphir looked slightly taken aback, but he responded readily enough. Imrahil had never punished his children for questioning him, so long as they obeyed him in the end.

"But you felt so bad the other day, after you did it. And it didn't seem to make you feel any better, really."

Imrahil considered this for a moment. "There is some truth to that. Very well, I shall stop with this glass. Will that satisfy you?" Elphir nodded, and after a moment's thought, his father set his glass down, picked up an empty one, and poured a thin layer of brandy into the bottom. He proffered it to the boy, who took it in some surprise. "There you are. You are old enough to start learning how to do this intelligently."

Elphir was old enough for a great many things, the Prince reflected as the boy sipped the brandy and made a funny face, including knowing exactly how much his mother had suffered. Imrahil had relied upon him heavily in the last days to see to his brothers and sisters. He himself had been concentrating exclusively upon Nimrien, and thus had been of little comfort to them. His only excuse was that he would have more time with them in the future, and that there had been very little left to her. But he still felt badly about it, and about the load he'd laid upon Elphir.

A long time ago, when he had been young, his father had let him run wild for too long with no responsibilities. It had made for some painful corrections and redirections when he was in his early thirties and he had been trying not to make that mistake with his own son. Elphir had borne the burden he'd set upon him with strength and grace, and Imrahil was extremely proud of him, though from the white, weary, strained expression on his face, doing so had taken a lot out of the boy. It may have been that he had asked too much of him.

Taking another sip, Elphir wrinkled his nose. "I don't see why you like this stuff so much."

"It's an acquired taste," his father explained. "Like that Haradrim tea." Elphir sniffed his goblet once more, and nodded agreement.

"It is the same sort of thing, isn't it? Smells a lot better than it tastes. Smells like fruit blossoms, tastes like mule piss." Taking a sip himself when Elphir proclaimed this, Imrahil almost snorted brandy up his nose.

"Where did you pick up that barracks-talk?" he asked when he could finally speak once more. "Let me guess--your cousin Boromir." Elphir's blush, visible even in the dimness, proclaimed his guess a correct one. The rules of Gondorian society dictated that the Steward of Gondor must come to the funeral of his former brother-in-law's wife, but Imrahil had been genuinely surprised when he had arrived with both of his sons. He suspected that Boromir, who had loved Nimrien, had put pressure on his father to allow him and Faramir, who had loved her even more, to come to the funeral, leaving their posts in Minas Tirith and Ithilien to do so. And Denethor may have feared offending Prince Adrahil and Lady Tirathiel, two of the few people who could hold their own with him, though it was unlikely that he would ever admit it. However it had come about, Imrahil had been glad to see them, for he looked upon them almost as auxiliary sons, and their presence had been very comforting.

"Father, can I light a lamp?" Elphir asked tentatively, and Imrahil shook himself.

"Of course, son. In truth, I hadn't even realized how dark it had become." He watched absently, as the boy took a spill and lit not one, but two lamps. When the growing light illuminated the room, Elphir looked about it for a moment with a troubled expression.

"What are you going to do about Mother's things?" he asked softly. Imrahil looked about, and became troubled in his turn. So many things--the plum-colored shawl draped over the chair, the favorite vase she had always filled with flowers from the garden, and of course the books, always the books everywhere. Her writing desk and sewing basket. The wardrobe full of her clothes. And numerous other things, small items that he would undoubtedly be stumbling across for months to come.

"I think," he said firmly, after the moment it took him to suppress the aching pain, "that I will store her clothes. Lothiriel may wish to have them when she is older. As for the rest of them--if there are particular things you would like to have to remember her by, then you may have them. The same with the other children. And I shall keep some things about as well. I do not wish to forget her, Elphir, nor have you forget her either. Is that what you were worried about?"

Elphir nodded, looking much relieved. "One of the ladies was saying after the funeral that it would be best for us to just to pack everything up and store it away. To move past it, and not dwell on it. I did not want to do that."

Suppressing the surge of anger he felt at the stupidity of some of the people who had tried to "console" his children, Imrahil strove to speak calmly. "To 'move past' the memory of a mother who loved you dearly, and whom you loved? To 'not dwell' on the fact that you miss her? I agree that in time you will have to accept that she will not return, but to immediately pack her things away, and try to forget her? People are foolish sometimes, Elphir." The boy nodded once more, and studied his glass intently.

"Do you think you will marry again, Father?"

Imrahil frowned. "I think it is entirely too early to be discussing that! Though if it will reassure you, I will honestly say that I will never marry again unless I know that lady will love all of you as if you were her own."

Elphir kept his eyes on the glass. "Thank you, Father. That does make me feel better." He had left the door ajar when he had come in, as Imrahil discovered when Erchirion stuck his head in without knocking.

"Father? Elphir? Oh, there you are." He closed the door behind him, and came over to the fire. Upon spying the brandy glass in his older brother's hand, he looked hopeful. "You gave Elphir brandy? Might I have some too?" Despite his sorrow, the Prince's mouth twitched.

"You are not old enough," Elphir declared loftily before he could frame a reply. "You are only thirteen. I am sixteen, and nearly a man."

"And besides," Imrahil added finally, "given that sailors have a well-known predilection for abusing strong drink, I think it best if we keep you from the brandy as long as possible." Erchirion actually grinned for a moment, before he remembered the day's events. Less reserved than Elphir, he moved to his father and wrapped his arms around him. The Prince ruffled his hair. "Did you finally exhaust Lord Gildor, then, lad?" Erchirion nodded.

"He said it was past my bed-time, that I should go to bed and dream of my ship." Imrahil cocked an eyebrow.

"Which ship is this?"

Looking hopefully at Elphir's brandy once more, Erchirion released him and stepped back so that he might talk better. Erchirion liked to talk with his hands.

"Oh, that's right! I didn't tell you yet! Lord Gildor says that for my twenty-first birthday, if I do my time and am in line for a captaincy, he will give me a ship! I am to think very hard about what kind of ship I want, and when I am eighteen, we will plan it, and then he will have some shipwrights come and build it for me! Isn't that wonderful?"

Thinking gratefully that at least the immortal elf lord knew exactly how to handle a grief-stricken young boy, Imrahil said, "That is extremely generous of him. I have never heard of him taking such a direct interest in a Prince of Dol Amroth before. I hope that you thanked him."

Erchirion nodded vigorously. "Oh I did, ever so much! But now I must decide about so many things--how big to make it, how deep the draught, how best to bank the oars....I will probably have to draw it out hundreds of times so I don't make mistakes! I have a name already though--I'm going to call it Foam-flyer." Elphir snorted.

"There's a bit of cheek for you--naming it after Earendil's ship!" Erchirion immediately sneered right back at his elder brother.

"Earendil's ship was Foam-FLOWER, Elph! You think you're so smart-don't you ever listen in class?"

"Well, it's ALMOST named after Earendil's ship, which is still rather a lot of cheek if you ask me!" Somewhat bemused, their father realized as he listened that not even the loss of a parent could suffice to quell sibling rivalry. He wasn't sure whether he should take this as a hopeful sign of recovery or not, but he was about to step in and stop things, reminding them of the solemnity of the day if necessary, when another knock came at his door.

"Uncle? Are you in there?" The voice was his nephew Faramir's.

"Yes, Faramir. Do come in." The door opened, and Faramir entered, leading Amrothos by the hand.

"Amrothos was getting tired, but he wanted to know where you were before he went to bed," the young man explained. Amrothos looked indignant at this explanation, but he was also rubbing his eyes.

"Thank you, Faramir, for taking such care of him," Imrahil replied gratefully, for Amrothos had spent most of the day in his much-loved older cousin's company, something that must have been rather trying for the serious nineteen-year-old, though he had been too mannerly to show it.

"It was no problem, Uncle, I was glad to do it," he replied, then a touch bitterly added, "It looks to be the only thing I will be allowed to do to help. Father wishes to depart the day after tomorrow." In other words, as soon as decency would allow. The Prince embraced him, feeling a harder wiriness about him than even when he had finished his year of training at Dol Amroth.

"I am just glad that you were able to come, nephew, and I will be thankful for your presence however long you can stay. You and your brother both."

"She was as a mother to me, sir," Faramir responded softly in his ear, and he could feel a dampness upon his neck. Suddenly, his own hard-won composure was threatened, so he gave the young man a hard squeeze and released him, turning to find and pour another glass of brandy.

With false heartiness, he commanded, "Elphir, put some more wood upon the fire. Faramir, your cousins and I were just sitting down for a bit. Would you care to join us?" He nodded, blinked and rubbed his eyes a bit and accepted the glass, taking a tentative sip. Elphir added the wood, and poked the fire up, then dropped to the carpet before the hearth, as did Erchirion. Imrahil seated himself in the chair that had been Nimrien's and gestured to Faramir to take the one that he habitually used. Amrothos looked between the two of them for a moment, then climbed up into Faramir's lap, and laid his head against his shoulder.

"Cousin Faramir was teaching me how to skulk," he told his father somewhat sleepily.

"To skulk?" inquired Imrahil.

"To walk soundlessly as possible through the underbrush, as the Rangers do," Faramir explained, with a bit of a sad smile. "Unfortunately, Uncle, you don't have any underbrush in this castle, and the gardeners chased us out of the garden. So we were forced to spread some straw in the aisle of the stable. I fear your hostlers are now wroth with me."

"I was quieter than Cousin Faramir," Amrothos declared.

"You are lighter and smaller than I am," his cousin countered, tweaking his nose.

"No, you just walk like a Mumak!" Amrothos replied, and actually giggled. His older brothers laughed as well.

"Have you ever seen a Mumak, Cousin Faramir?" Elphir asked, intrigued. Faramir shook his head, and took another tiny sip of the brandy.

"Not yet, nor do I ever wish to! And I am sad to inform you that I am a very poor Ranger! Much too loud, as Amrothos has accurately noted, and a bad shot. Why, there's a Ranger named Mablung in the troop who can shoot a tiny bud off of a tree at a distance you wouldn't believe! But as for me--my fellow Rangers give thanks to the Valar every time we fight and they come away without being shot by me as well as the enemy!"

Quiet laughter all around, and Elphir spoke again. "So you have seen battle then, cousin? What is it like?" Imrahil, who could tell from the look in Faramir's eyes that he had not only seen battle in the time since he'd left Dol Amroth, but was blooded as well, waited intently for his reply.

Faramir took a moment to answer, the hand not holding the glass absently stroking Amrothos' head. Amrothos was nearly asleep. At last, very softly--"'Tis said that it is a different thing for each man, cousin. So I do not know if anything I could say would be helpful to you. Perhaps after you have seen battle, we may meet and compare notes."

Disappointed, Elphir nodded, but seemed to realize that it would not be a good thing to press his cousin further. And Imrahil, looking at him, realized with a shock that indeed, in the next year or so, he would be sending his eldest away to continue his tutelage in the arts of war, probably under the command of his cousin Boromir. For it would be best if he were to gain some experience in the skirmishes now taking place upon the eastern border, against the inevitable day that the Darkness would come against them for real.

The Prince's mind touched briefly upon, then shied away from, the possibility that he might lose Elphir as well, and for the first time in his life, he was sorry that he had such a large family, had given fortune so many chances to hurt his heart. Then he shook himself mentally, hard, and thanked the Valar that he had four such lovely, intelligent children.

As if on cue, the screaming began, faint in the distance, then growing swiftly closer and louder. Recognizing his daughter's voice, Imrahil got up and moved swiftly to the door. He threw it open just in time to see Lothiriel come running up to his door in her little white night-gown, her face red and swollen, tears pouring down her cheeks. Mayneth, who had been looking after her since Nimrien had become too weak to do so, was huffing after her.

"Mommy! I want you! Where are you! MOMMY!"
Her frantic pleas tore the wound in Imrahil's heart wide open, and it was only with the greatest of difficulty that he was able to maintain his equanimity. Sweeping her up into his arms, he pressed his face into her hot little neck and murmured softly to her.

"Here now, chick, what is the matter? Shhhh, shhhh----calm down a bit and tell me what is wrong." She scrubbed her tear-stained face and runny nose back and forth against the shoulder of his tunic, her plump little body still shuddering. When she looked up, he could tell that other than staining the shoulder of his tunic, she'd accomplished nothing more than smearing tears and less savory substances all over her face. So he pulled out his handkerchief and began wiping her face as she hiccuped.

"I wanted Mommy to tell me a story! She always does!" And Nimrien always had, until right before the very end. "But Mayneth says she is dead and she is never coming back! Mayneth's wrong, isn't she, Daddy? You know where Mommy is, don't you?"

Mayneth, who had finally caught up with her charge, recoiled at the furious look directed at her by her liege over his distraught daughter's shoulder. Adrahil's son was always courteous to those subordinate to him, so on the rare occasions when he lost his temper, it was truly fearful to behold.

"Did you tell her that, Mayneth?" he gritted, grey eyes blazing. Mayneth dropped a trembling curtsey.

"Aye, milord. I did not think you would wish me to lie to the girl."

"And it did not occur to you that the cold, hard truth could have waited till some other time than right before bedtime?" he snarled. The governess blanched. "You may go! I shall take charge of her for tonight." Mayneth curtseyed once more, murmured, "Milord," and fled.

"Where is Mommy, Daddy?" Lothiriel asked again, almost whispering in his ear, and Imrahil kissed her cheek. "Is she still in that cold place?"

He realized with dismay that she was talking about the sepulcher, and made an effort to calm himself. "We are going to talk about that now, chick." Turning, he was greeted by the sight of his three sons and his nephew, all on their feet by the fire, their faces shocked, paled by the harsh black of their mourning clothes. Three boys and one young man, all grey of eye and dark of hair. A bevy of black swans. Or corbies, more like, he thought darkly. Though crows did not cry, and Amrothos' eyes were brimming over. The others also looked very upset. The very thin veneer of humor and comfort that had begun to be laid over their sorrow had been stripped bare by the little girl's anguish.

The Prince moved back into the room, pulling Nimrien's shawl off the back of the chair it was draped upon, and wrapping Lothiriel in it. Lothiriel rubbed her nose against it, and inhaling her mother's perfume, calmed somewhat. The scent had rather another effect upon Imrahil, but he simply gritted his teeth, and proceeded to his own armchair, pushing it closer to the fire before he seated himself with his daughter upon his lap. Tucking the shawl around her chilled small feet, he gestured to the boys to seat themselves, and they did once more, this time all of them upon the floor close to the fire, save for Amrothos, who squeezed himself up into Imrahil's lap beside Lothiriel, and buried his face against his father's chest.. Faramir, having set the brandy down, laid his arms about Elphir's and Erchirion's shoulders, and they leaned against him, not standing upon their manly dignity. Nimrien's chair stood empty.

"I want Mommy to come back from the cold place," Lothiriel murmured, snuggling close. "I want her to come back up here where she can be warm and tell me stories." Imrahil kissed the top of her head, blinking hard.

"I will tell you stories, and Elphir, and Erchirion and Amrothos will too. Mommy is not in the cold place--what is there is only a.....husk. Mommy is someplace else." He searched frantically for a way to explain bodies and spirits to a four-year-old. Lothiriel, watching him, began to sniffle once more.

His salvation came from a rather unexpected source. "Like 'Rothos' grasshopper, Thiri," Erchirion said suddenly. "Do you remember the grasshopper he was keeping in the jar last summer? How he was feeding it lettuce and weeds and things?" Amrothos perked up at bit at hearing his explorations into the insect world mentioned, and Lothiriel nodded. "Remember how one day we went in there, and the grasshopper was all glistening and shiny and new, and there was this grey skin in the jar?" Lothiriel nodded, eyes wide. "We took the jar out to the garden, and opened it and he flew away. But the skin was still there. Mommy is like that. What is in the cold place is just the skin. She is someplace else."

Imrahil gave his second son an approving look as his youngest child digested this for a long moment. Then--"I want to see the grasshopper skin again," Lothiriel demanded imperiously. Amrothos started to rise, intending to go get it, but the Prince shook his head and snuggled him closer.

"That can wait till tomorrow, Thiri. What else would you like to know?"

"If Mommy is not in the cold place, then where is she? Is she all shiny and new too? Why can't I see her?"

"Yes, she is shiny and new. You are a very clever girl to realize that," Imrahil murmured. "And she has gone to the place that people go when they are shiny and new. She is with your Grandmother Olwen and your Aunt Finduilas, both of whom died before you were ever born, and her father and mother. She has not seen them since she was a little girl like you. And one day, a long time from now, when you have been all grown up for a long time, and had a husband and children of your own," always providing she did not fall victim to the curse that seemed to haunt the women of Dol Amroth, the Prince thought grimly, "you will see her again. And I am sure that you will both be very happy."

Lothiriel, exhausted from her emotional outburst, yawned and snuggled up against her father. "Is the shiny people place nice?"

"Very," interjected Faramir quietly before Imrahil could reply. He continued in a soft, soothing voice. "The hills are green and rolling, and the sky is the color of robin's eggs. There are fluffy white clouds in the sky that roll across it and look like sheep in a blue meadow. And lakes like silver mirror-glass." The little princess watched him, sleepy-eyed. She had been but a babe the last time he had visited Dol Amroth, and he was a stranger to her, yet she also seemed to recognize the closeness between him and her father and brothers.

"The people get there on a silver ship with oars inlaid with mother-of-pearl and sails woven of silk and moonlight," explained Erchirion, taking the tale up in his turn with a certain relish. "The sea is always calm, and the wind is always fresh. The ship sails so smoothly that no one ever gets seasick." It was considerate of him to include that little detail, Imrahil thought, for Nimrien had always gotten wretchedly ill on the rare occasions she had put to sea.

"And there are flowers," Elphir put in, "flowers of all kinds. Hyacinths, and anemones and snapdragons and delphiniums and roses, all at once and all the time. Yellow and purple and pink and red. You know mother will like that." Lothiriel nodded, and yawned once more. Her eyes drifted closed.

"Candy," Amrothos said suddenly, waking up all at once. "There's candy. On the bushes. It grows there, and people just pick it off and eat it. Honeydrops. Like the ones the man in the Old Town makes." Lothiriel roused at that.

"Honeydrops? I want some honeydrops!" His two older brothers shot Amrothos annoyed looks, but he continued unperturbed.

"We don't have any here right now, Thiri. But I imagine Father will let one of the big brothers take us to the sweet-shop in Old Town tomorrow. Won't you, Father?" The bald-faced attempt at manipulation, typical of Amrothos, was yet another indication to the Prince that things would eventually return to normal.

"Yes, Amrothos," he answered dryly, "You and Thiri may go to the sweet-shop tomorrow. Erchirion or Elphir, or both if they like, may take you. I will give them money in the morning. You may all have honey-drops, or whatever other sweet you would like." Annoyance turned to admiration as the first-born and second-born sons regarded their younger brother. Amrothos merely smiled, yawned, and reached for Lothiriel's hand across his father's chest.

"Do you hear that, Thiri? We will go find some honey-drops in the morning, after breakfast. Now go to sleep." Her fingers twined in her brother's, the little girl did so almost immediately. A scant few moments later, Amrothos followed suit. Imrahil sat for a time, his fingers stroking their soft hair gently, listening to Faramir chat quietly with his young cousins about inconsequential things--horses and hunts, and Erchirion's recent short sea voyage with one of Imrahil's captains. His grief for Nimrien was a subdued ache at present, though he had no doubt that it would pain him again soon. The warm weight of his children against him was soothing, their somnolence contagious, and before he knew it, he had dozed off.

He woke to find Faramir bending over him. "Do you require a rescue, Uncle?" The Prince stretched, hearing his back crack a bit.

"Yes, please. Put them on my bed, if you don't mind. They are going to stay with me tonight. You may as well, if you wish," he said to his two oldest sons. "The bed is certainly large enough, and I would be glad of the company." Their self-respect preserved by that statement, Elphir and Erchirion agreed to stay. Elphir took up Lothiriel, and Faramir lifted Amrothos, bore him over to the bed, and began stripping off his outer garments. The two youngsters were laid in the middle of the huge mattress, and tucked in. The older boys then began readying themselves, folding their clothes and placing them on a chair without being asked.

"I should seek my own bed," Faramir said quietly, and Imrahil escorted him to the door and into the hall outside, closing the door behind them. Once there, the Prince sagged against the wall, rubbing his eyes with a tired hand.

"I do not know if I can do this, lad," he admitted. "Not by myself." Faramir put his arms around him unhesitatingly, and embraced him almost fiercely.

"You can, Uncle. I do not think you realize how strong you are. Or how strongly you love." Imrahil sighed, and permitted himself the luxury of resting his head against the slender shoulder for a moment. Then he straightened, and gave his nephew a gentle squeeze in return.

"Would that I was what you think I am, Faramir. Or even half of it! Are you well with the Rangers? Who is your captain?"

"Captain Wetherin. He says he served with you a long time ago."

"Ah yes! I remember Wetherin. I was your age then. A good man."

"He says the same of you."

"Give him my best wishes when you return to your company." The Prince then released Faramir with a fond look, and directed his attention curiously towards the stairwell, for someone was coming, and being none too quiet about it.

The someone turned out to be his other, older nephew, still in his mourning blacks, now somewhat disheveled. A half-full wine bottle swung gently by its neck in his hand. He reached the top of the stairs, spied them, and walked towards them. His expression was one of regretful sorrow.

"Uncle, I have no words to say other than that I am sorry yet again. I loved Aunt Nimrien well." His embrace was stronger, his arms more muscular than those of his younger brother. Imrahil nodded, and put him at arms' length to give him a good looking over. Boromir, at twenty-four years of age, had come into his prime. Despite the solemn sadness of the day, the young ladies of western Gondor had been most impressed with him during the funeral, unable to keep their eyes from him, magnificent as he had been in his black velvet.

When his uncle released him, Boromir stepped back and turned his attention to his younger brother. "Faramir, Father was looking for you. He asked me to seek you out and discover if you were still on nanny duty." Faramir frowned, the line between his brows deepening.

"Is that what he said?"

"Yes. Almost word for word." Turning back to Imrahil--"Uncle, I know that there is little enough I can do for you with the whole of the realm between us, but what I can accomplish has been done this day." Imrahil gave him a look of weary puzzlement, and he explained further. "Father and I are still leaving the day after tomorrow, but Faramir will remain for the next month, and return to Minas Tirith with Grandfather when he comes to Council. That's what Father wants to tell you, brother, so do strive to look properly surprised. And don't make too much of a fuss about it."

Astonished, the Prince asked, "How in the name of the White Tree did you accomplish that, Boromir?" Boromir grinned.

"I remembered how you had stayed in Minas Tirith for a month to help us after Mother died, and I also remembered someone mentioning that it was because of an old Numenorean custom. So I asked Lady Tirathiel about it, and she explained it to me." Imrahil nodded thoughtfully.

"Yes, I was the official representative of our house. The custom dictates that each house related to the one in grief send a member to stay for a moon and help the family recover. The Bearer of Burdens, I believe it is called. It has fallen out of fashion somewhat in your part of the realm, though we still hold to it here in Dol Amroth. But however did you get your father to agree to such a thing?" Boromir's grin broadened.

"Timing. Timing is crucial to most strategies. I simply waited till Father was in a crowd of the most conservative stick-in-the-muds. You know, Pinnath Gelin, Lamedon, Calembel, all of those. And their wives. Then I just walked up and asked him right in front of them which of us was going to be the Bearer from our house." The Prince and his brother looked at him, aghast.

"You didn't!" Faramir exclaimed. Boromir took a swig from his bottle.

"I certainly did! Well, of course, that lot all start exclaiming about how wonderful it is that the Steward keeps to the old, proper traditions in these trying times, when the younger generation is so heedless, and everything is going to wrack and ruin. Did I mention that the military appropriations are coming up for a vote again in this upcoming Council session? Cornered publicly like that, there was nothing he could do but say that as he could not stay, and I was needed with the army, that Faramir would be the Bearer. And accept the praise of the conservative faction, all the while looking daggers at me."

He took another drink, then glanced sidelong at his uncle and brother, who were still staring at him with identical looks of amazement.

"Just because I do not care to spend all my spare waking hours reading moldering old history books or writing poetry, does not mean that I am a fool!" he declared. "I have been sitting in Council since I was twelve years old! You two bookworms never give me any credit! I know how to maneuver in places other than battlefields! Though in truth, I've been a little too clever too often for my own good of late, and will undoubtedly be made to pay for it in the near future. Unless Father makes Faramir pay for it instead."

"I care not if he does, Boromir!" exclaimed Faramir. "I will gladly pay the price if I may stay here for a time and help Uncle. But what about my captain? He will be expecting me."

"Wetherin told me when I came for you that if there was anything he could do for Uncle, he would do it. He'll live without you for a bit, brother. Uncle saved his life when they were serving together." Faramir looked at Imrahil in surprise. Imrahil nodded. "So come along now, and try to look surprised, submissive and obedient. And not overmuch pleased. That might help to lessen the cloud of wrath I feel hovering over my head! Good night to you, Uncle."

"Good night to you, Boromir. And thank you."

"It was my pleasure, sir. The least I could do, but I was glad to do it." His nephews moved off towards their rooms, Boromir offering his little brother some of the wine. Faramir shook his head, and the Prince could not hear what he said, but he could hear Boromir's response.

"Oho! The GOOD brandy? I knew I should have come upstairs sooner!"
Imrahil leaned tiredly back against the wall again for a moment before returning to his chambers. He thought upon what he told Faramir but a few moments before, about being unable to go on by himself, and realized that he had been making a very great mistake. Reflecting upon how his sons and Faramir had all combined forces to soothe Lothiriel, and how Boromir had risked parental fury to see that he had Faramir's comfort and support, it was apparent to him that even without Nimrien, he still had a family, and that it was a closer-knit one than most. To go on alone, for any of them, would be difficult--and unnecessary. If they shared their sorrow, they would lessen it, and in time would surmount it. They would do well enough.

He turned, and went back into his bedroom, intending to disrobe and slip in upon one side of the bed. But Elphir and Erchirion were still awake, and he discovered that his children had other ideas. After the appropriate preparations, and with a certain degree of difficulty because of not wanting to wake the little ones, he took the place appointed him.
In the dark watches of the night, something less than a shadow, a sigh, a breeze, moved within the room, rising from its chair and gliding to the great bed which held so many beautiful memories--and now held the entirety of what had been its heart. As had happened countless times before, a loving eye passed over the dreaming young ones: Lothiriel, one chubby hand still clutching a plum-colored shawl, the other knit tightly into her father's nightshirt; Amrothos, upon Imrahil's other side, his arm thrown across his father's chest and head laid upon his shoulder; Erchirion laid compactly to the outside of Amrothos, taking up very little room as he had been training himself to do, in anticipation of a narrow ship's berth or hammock; Elphir, upon Lothiriel's other side, like his brother guarding his younger sibling from falling off the bed, though unlike Erchirion he was so sprawled out that there was a good chance that he himself would find the floor before morning.

And in the center of them all, he who had been the most significant person for most of a life, the heart and soul and mind and body all beloved. Tear tracks still silvered his cheeks from grief given in to quietly when all were asleep, but already his jaw and brow were set in that determined way that indicated he would persevere and never fail, never be forsworn. He would survive, as would they all. It was time at last to depart in peace.

Dreams deepened, became pleasant imaginings of a mother's good-night kiss upon the brow, a gentle tuck of the blanket, a soft lullaby, the faint scent of lavender upon the air. Young faces relaxed and smiled. For him, a memory vivid as life, of a caress upon the cheek and the sweet pressure of lips upon lips--and the promise, known somehow with heart-deep certainty, that he would be waited for.

Moonlight spilled through the ornate windowed doors, a broad path across the fine carpets. It dimmed for a moment, as something moved through it, and to the doors beyond. Then it brightened again. The omnipresent sighing of the Sea continued, undisturbed.