Chapter 16

The morning held promise. At the moment only of the sun rising into a cloudless sky, but maybe, if fortune favoured him... Throwing the thought aside with an exclamation of annoyance – he couldn't stop thinking about her for one moment it seemed – Imrahil took his weight from the saddle and urged Blade to his full pace. The young horse responded instantly. As eager as his master to enjoy an unrestricted gallop, he thundered wildly along the hard sand. Imrahil laughed out loud for the joy of it. True freedom – the vast open space of sand, mud and marsh grass that made up the estuary was inhabited only by sheep, shore birds and the occasional fox searching for stranded fish in the deeper pools. He had beaten the cockle-pickers out this morning.

But within moments Aearin invaded his mind again – he had got up before dawn because he didn't want to miss her. Not that he really thought she would be out this early, but he intended to make sure he met her coming back from his ride, so that he would have every excuse to stop and walk with her for as long as possible. Or for as long as she would allow him.

He reached a place where the estuary widened, with the open sea a smudge in the distance. Time to turn around. Time to see if he could find her. Although quite what he would do and say he had no idea. Unheard of for him to begin a campaign with no real plan. Never in his life had he been so unprepared for the task ahead. With an irritated sigh, Imrahil resumed his seat, eased Blade back to a canter, and turned on his tracks. During his headlong dash along the estuary the sun had changed from red to orange and trees and bushes lining the banks had emerged from the grey shadows of dawn. He trotted Blade closer to the river's edge, splashing though the rivulets of water that lingered in the little undulations left in the softer sand by the receding tide. Staring towards the town, he realised that he must have ridden further than he'd thought: the rooftops of Linhir were only just visible. But it was still early, and he couldn't believe she would have been and gone.

But it would be stupid to hang around and he increased his pace, raising his hand to a group of bait-diggers heading towards the muddy edges of the river with shovels and buckets. A couple of cockle-men pulling a sled loaded with empty baskets passed him with a cheery greeting – it was hard work collecting the shellfish with the heavy wooden rakes, but worthwhile. Those that dwelled on the coast could always glean a good living. And hopefully with the Corsairs out of action for the foreseeable future, it would be a safe one, too.

The houses were much nearer now and Imrahil scanned ahead. Nothing on the beach but fishermen. He moved his eyes higher up to where the marram grass edged the sand, squinting into the sun. No dark-haired woman in sight, or any sign of the dogs. But he glimpsed something white in the dunes between two clumps of tall grass. A little closer and he realised it was a gull, its wings flapping uselessly as it tried to leave the ground. Imrahil hesitated, but only for a moment— he hated to see anything struggling for life. If the bird was injured then a clean dispatch would be preferable.

Its feet trapped by a clump of unravelling net, weed and line that had caught on a piece of driftwood, the gull thrashed around, trying to free itself. Imrahil slid down from Blade and looked about him; he didn't trust the horse to stand without being tethered quite yet. A stumpy bush would have to do. He pulled the reins over Blade's head and looped them over a branch. The horse snorted, showing his disgust at being tied with the prospect of so little movement, and the gull glared at him with a malevolent eye. Imrahil took out his knife, but when he knelt down he saw that with a bit of care he might be able to free the bird. Unaware of his intentions, the yellow beak stabbed at him viciously.

"Don't be so ungrateful!" Imrahil chastised the gull with rueful laugh. Quickly, avoiding the bird's lethal weapon, he grabbed it behind the neck, took the gauntlet off his other hand with his teeth, and shoved it over the gull's head. He trapped gauntlet and head lightly under his arm, not wanting to suffocate it, and started to untangle the net. The strong fibre parted easily under the assault of his sharp knife but, with the need to avoid nicking the pink feet, the last fiddly bits took him time.

"There!" he said at last. A speedy examination assured him the bird had sustained no lasting damage and, holding its wings to its body with one hand, he pulled the gauntlet off its head. The gull immediately swivelled, lunging at him angrily, but holding it away from him, Imrahil stood up and threw it up into the air. A few frantic flaps and it soared upwards, heading for the river.

"That was kind."

Still watching the gull, the sound of her voice startled him. Slowly Imrahil turned around. Aearin was watching him from a short distance away; she held the collar of a lurcher in each hand, both dogs' gaze intent on the departing gull. Her eyes held approval, which pleased him enough, but when she smiled at him his heart floundered and he could only stare, mute. She might be wearing a plain blue dress and serviceable boots, with her hair dressed in a simple plait. But to him she still looked better than any woman he had ever met. He was trapped, tighter than the gull. With no one to set him free.

"I saw what you were doing and held onto them," Aearin went on, filling the silence between them. "They would have made short work of the poor thing. It was good of you to take so much trouble."

Recovering himself, he smiled back. "I don't think they'll catch it now," he said with a laugh.

"No." Aearin chuckled, releasing her hold on the two dogs. They shot off in the direction the gull had flown, long legs flying over the sand. But anchored to the ground, they could only dream of pulling down their prey as the gull rose higher and higher. "Oh, I shouldn't have done that," she exclaimed, watching them in dismay. "They'll go right down into the mud and will come back in a disgusting state. And they hate going under the pump."

Imrahil put his fingers to his lips and let out a long piercing whistle. Without breaking stride the two dogs curved in a wide arc. Aearin came to stand alongside him as the lurchers streaked back towards them. "They are obeying you," she said, amazed.

"We have lurchers at home," Imrahil explained.

The dogs slowed to a halt just in front of him, showing none of the disdain they had exhibited on their first meeting. After fondling their ears he sent them to hunt in the dunes with a click of his fingers.

Aearin looked a bit uneasy. "They will spend ages seeking out the rabbits; I just hope they don't find any."

"If you bring them here every morning and they haven't yet, then you've been lucky," Imrahil told her.

"Except when the tide is in, I encourage them onto the sand." She shuddered. "But I suppose it's only a matter of time."

Imrahil retrieved Blade from his bush, and gave him a pat, still with his eyes on Aearin. "It wouldn't be so bad. Lurchers kill quickly and cleanly, and if well fed would leave the body..." He stopped abruptly. Great Ulmo! He wanted to woo the woman and here he was talking about dead rabbits!

But she didn't seem to mind and those cute little frown lines appeared. "Lady Cuthwith says they are used a lot in Rohan and provide many a dinner. So I mustn't mind too much. And I could never walk down here without them."

"I remember Mirineth saying she liked to walk along the estuary, doesn't she want to come with you?" he said, glad to change the subject.

Aearin laughed. "Not at this time of the morning. But I have always loved the early hours. Even in the City I like to get up and watch the sunrise. You must like it too," she glanced at his horse, "but I am surprised you are out here on your own, lord."

Imrahil raised a wry brow. "You think I am in danger whilst enjoying a morning ride?" He took the opportunity to get himself between Blade and her, making it obvious that he intended to walk with her and not mount his horse.

"No, of course not." Apart from an unreadable emotion that flickered in her eyes, she made no objection, but fell into step with him.

"Then why are you surprised?" he asked once they had left the soft sand of the dunes and gained the firmer footing of the beach. The dogs, after a quick check to make sure of their direction, resumed their hunt for game.

"Don't the men you have with you need to exercise their horses as well, lord?" she responded.

"They have all day. I do like to be on my own sometimes you know, and partake of simple enjoyments. I am so often surrounded by protocol that mornings like this are a refreshing change. And besides," he threw her a cheeky grin, "if they were here I would have to ride on, but now I can enjoy the much more pleasurable pastime of talking to you. And since we are walking together, perhaps you might learn to use my name."

Her face flushed slightly, but although she agreed to his request, she laughed off his gambit with practised assurance, no doubt learned in the high circles of the City, and followed it up by talking of incidentals. After that their conversation flowed easily: Imrahil told her of his invitation to share the board of the local lord the night before – once the word had got out of his presence in the district a visit to the castle above Linhir had been inevitable – and Aearin regaled him with the story of Mirineth's intention to threaten her father that she would stow away on Nethon's ship if the young man did not gain permission to marry her.

Although amused by Mirineth's continued resourcefulness, he was not really interested in her plans at that moment and waited for a slight but perceptible pause in their banter before he caught Aearin's full attention by bringing Blade to a halt. She looked at him questioningly, and Imrahil regarded with a steady gaze for a moment before saying with none of his usual humour, but in what he hoped was a voice that showed his sincerity. "I meant it, you know. I enjoy your company and am glad we broke our journey in Linhir." She flushed again, but couldn't hide the flash of excitement in her eyes, or stop the warmth showing in her shaky smile, before her face resumed its normal composure. The promising response decided him that, although it would be unwise to hope, there was no need yet to despair and he set the conversation going in what he hoped would be a positive direction without rushing her. Walking on, with just a laugh to show he had registered her discomposure, he waved his arm, to encompass the estuary and the scenery around them.

"It's a spectacular place, are you enjoying your time here? I remember you once told me that you love the City and found Lossarnach pleasurable for a time, but too lacking in culture to consider as a permanent residence."

Aearin, apparently grateful for the return to polite dialogue, gave him a real smile. "I expect I would feel the same if I stayed here for too long," she admitted. "But I will certainly relish the summer here, it is not the best time to be in the City."

"No, I think that is where Dol Amroth has the advantage. The sea breezes keep it cool and fresh. There is the beach and the pine forests to enjoy, but we have more than our fair share of culture. The library certainly rivals that in Minas Tirith, and our musicians have no equal."

A wistful look crossed her face. "It does sound lovely; I am surprised you are not hurrying home."

"I'm here till the end of the week." No harm in telling her he only had a couple of days. "We are going by ship now that we are escorting Lady Oriel."


Imrahil frowned; she had looked stricken for a moment. "Yes, she is not at all happy here, and I am taking her to stay with my sister for a while. I am certainly hoping that she will eventually be content to settle in Dol Amroth."

"Oh, I see." She looked down at the ground, kicking sand with her foot. "I had no idea she was going with you."

"I only arranged it yesterday. I put the suggestion forward and both her mother and her brother were happy to let her come. We trust that after living quietly with my sister, Oriel will feel able to marry and put the past behind her."

"Yes, one can only hope that," Aearin said in a blank voice. "She is very fortunate that you are so considerate of her situation."

"Well, having had her jump out of a window into my arms, I do feel responsible," he replied. Why was she looking like that? He would have thought she'd be pleased he was putting himself out to help Oriel. There was no accounting for her moods, but he had so little time and having brought the conversation to this point, the urge to test the waters was irresistible. Sometimes a frontal attack was best. "And what are your plans when Mirineth finally gets her way and your companionship becomes unnecessary?"

"Back to the City, I suppose," she said, avoiding his gaze

Now he was going to surprise her, but she must have an idea of his intentions. He'd made it plain he was interested. "You could come to Dol Amroth."

She raised her head to search his face, total bewilderment written across hers. "Why should I go there? Does Oriel need a companion?"

He laughed at her prevarication, it had to be deliberate. "Aearin, I know I made a muck of that night in Minas Tirith, but I have ridden up and down the estuary this morning in the hope of finding you alone. I want you to come to Dol Amroth to be a companion to me, of course. Why do you think?"

Her eyes widened and she flushed red. "How dare you! You overbearing, insulting, insufferable... boar!" As he stood gaping, she turned on her heel and ran up into the scrub, reaching some rickety wooden steps that led to the road.

What the blazes...? No, she couldn't have thought... "Aearin! You mistake me!" he shouted after her. But by the time he had turned Blade, she was halfway up and calling to the dogs. "Aearin stop!" She had gone. Damn! Why had he made a joke of it? Surely she knew what he meant. What did she want – that he should have gone down on bended knee on the beach! He quickly mounted Blade and looked up to the road, but there was a wall at the top of the dunes and he couldn't take the horse up the steps. Well, he should easily catch up with her on horseback once he reached the road, so had no intention of leaving it there! How dare she think that he would make improper suggestions to a lady such as her! Then he remembered his previous misdemeanour, but surely she had understood that? Oh... Morgoth's balls, women were enough to send a man mad!

But to his mounting frustration it took him a while to find a way off the beach and by that time there was no sign of her; she had probably already reached the house. By then his anger, at himself and Aearin, had grown to boiling pitch, and he raced Blade down the verge after her, determined to have it out if he had to drag her screaming from the house.

"I've called to see Lady Cuthwith," Imrahil shot at the gate-keeper as he swept past him.

"Lord, Lady Cuthwith has gone out..."

"Good!" Imrahil barked over his shoulder.

He tied Blade to a tree and hammered on the door. It was opened a few moments later by the same porter as before. Imrahil stepped straight in without waiting for an invitation. "Lady Cuthwith and Lady Mirineth have gone out, lord," the man stammered a bit bemused.

Imrahil threw his gauntlets down on a table. "Lady Aearin?"

"She's gone to lie down, lord. She said she had a headache."

A headache! Well, he had heartache, so had no sympathy. But a moment's consideration told him that a headache sounded promising; she wasn't the type to languish over a spate with someone she considered rude and overbearing. "Tell Lady Aearin I'm here to see her."

"I don't think it will do you any good, lord. She went straight to her room saying she didn't want to be disturbed."

"Tell her!" Imrahil snarled, advancing a step towards him. The man blanched, turned around and hurried up the stairs. Imrahil paced the hall, his mind in turmoil. If she really wanted nothing to do with him he'd have to accept that. But she had blown hot and cold, and just as he thought he was getting somewhere... infuriating woman!

"I'm sorry, lord." The porter appeared at the top of the staircase. "Lady Aearin says she won't see anybody."

Imrahil took the stairs two at a time, ignoring the look of shock on the porter's face. "Which room?"

The man put out his arms to bar his way. "I can't let you, lord. Not to her bedchamber."

Paying no attention, Imrahil grabbed him by the neck of his tunic and lifted him bodily out of the way. He had caught the sound of a bolt sliding on the second door along. He reached it in a few strides, and started banging on the door.

"Let me in, Aearin, or I'll batter it down!"

"Go away, I have nothing to say to you."

Imrahil kicked at the door. "You've made a mistake. Let me in!"

No response. He kicked it again.

"All right! All right! I will open it. And then you can go away!"

The door opened and Aearin stood facing him. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders and he suspected that she'd been crying. But now her eyes were blazing with anger, not tears. "If you've come to apologize you're wasting your time. I only let you in because I didn't want the door damaged. I never want to see you again."

Imrahil advanced into the room, and Aearin stood her ground for only a moment before she retreated to stand with her back to the window, watching him warily. Imrahil closed the door with his foot. Keeping his eyes fixed on her, he enunciated slowly so there was no mistake this time. "I have not come to apologise. I have come to ask you to marry me."

"Marry you?" she exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes, marry me. What in heaven's name did you think I meant!" he shot back, nettled. She'd always had a low opinion of him.

She looked at him aghast, her face a picture of pure disbelief. "But what about Oriel?"

"Oriel? What in the world has Oriel got to do with it?"

"You told me you were taking her to stay with your sister until she was well enough to marry. Even a Prince of Gondor can't marry two women!"

Imrahil stared thunderstruck for a moment as his conversation with her on the beach flashed through his mind. Fool that he was! He burst out laughing.

"I don't find it funny," she spat at him.

But he couldn't stop, and spluttered out. "Not me. Sergion! I told you we came because Sergion wanted to see her. Had you forgotten that?"

She obviously had, because her mouth opened in shock. "But your sister. Taking her to live with your sister, I assumed..."

Getting his laughter under control Imrahil hurriedly made everything clear. "I am doing no more than trying to aid a friend. Two friends, because I consider Oriel to be one as well. But I have not the slightest wish to marry her. There is only one woman I wish to make my wife and that is you. Only why that is with the way you have berated me and scolded me since our first meeting, I have no idea."

Her face had gone from red to white and back to red. Trembling, she moved a few paces and clutched at the bed post. "You can't really want to wed me."

Imrahil took a few steps and took hold of her hands. After a half-hearted protest she let him hold them; her fingers fluttered in his like a trapped bird. "Of course I do. I think I knew from the first time I set eyes on you, although it took me longer to recognize the fact. Let me make it plain that the reason I accepted Glavror's hospitality was not because I wanted a match with his daughter, but because I fell in love with his daughter's companion."

She stared at him in wonder. "You loved me from then?"

Imrahil pulled her into his arms, lifted her chin with his finger, and looked deep into her eyes. "How long does it take to fall in love? A day? An hour?"

With a choked sob she buried her head in his shoulder. "No, just a breathless moment."

He laughed again, but this time with pure joy. He kissed her, spearing his fingers through her glorious hair so she could not escape, eager to taste her, love her. And be loved. "Is that why you were so awful to me?" he murmured when their lips parted.

"I..." But at that moment the door flew open and a short, round lady burst into the room. Behind her stood two young men who Imrahil guessed had been dragged from the garden to throw him out.

"It's all right, Toreth, Prince Imrahil is just leaving." Aearin forestalled her quickly.

The maidservant folded her arms. "He'd better be, my lady, and I'll just stay here till he does."

"No, you won't," Imrahil rounded on her, his patience exhausted after the strain of the past hour. "And if you think those two," he indicated the boys who looked as though the last thing they wanted was to tackle him, "have got the least hope of removing me from this room until I am ready then..."

"Imrahil, please."Aearin caught his arm.

But he ignored her; having finally won her, there was no way he was letting her go yet. "Out woman!"

He took one step towards the maid, who shrieked. "You wait till I tell Lady Cuthwith!"

He took another step. "I'll tell her myself. Get out!"

With a yelp of protest she scurried out of the door. Imrahil slammed it shut. He turned back to Aearin. "Where were we?"

She shook her head, passing a hand across her brow. "Imrahil, this is madness. Are you certain you know what you are doing?"

"I know exactly what I am doing." Now what! He grasped her hands again, but she didn't look at him, dropping her gaze to the floor.

"Aearin, what is wrong? A moment ago you were hugging me." She shook her head, but all he could see was a mass of shining hair. Sighing in frustration he let go one hand and used his finger to raise her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Tell me what is bothering you?"

Her lovely eyes were heavy with tears. "How can you marry me, Imrahil. You must see it's impossible. We got carried away."

"Carried away? What in Ulmo's name are you talking about? There are only two reasons that would stop me marrying you – one is that you already have a husband and the other is that you don't love me. Which is it?"

"Of course I haven't a husband." She tried to twist away from him, but he held on to her hand and pulled her back.

"Then you don't love me."

She let out a soft moaning sound, that he interpreted as a 'yes I do' before saying quietly, her voice breaking with emotion. "But you are a prince. Your parents ... the Steward ...they'll never let you."

Imrahil bit off the retort that came to his lips, and put his arm around her, hugging her to him. All the confidence and composure that characterized her had gone, and her whole body shook. "You're talking nonsense. Come and sit down."

He led her to a couch, nestling her into the crook of his arm when they sat down. "The Steward has no say in whom I marry, and what makes you think that you will be unacceptable to my parents."

"Imrahil," she said, searching his face with troubled eyes, "you are a Prince of the realm. I am a soldier's daughter..."

"Good grief, Woman!" Imrahil exclaimed. "One only has to look at you to see you carry the blood of Numenor. There is nothing to blush at in your mother's linage, and your father's family might have lost their land, but you have proof that the title came from King Eärnil himself."

"But my father only had his soldier's pay and my maternal grandfather had nothing. His ancestors only cared for scholarly pursuits and accrued very little. I come without a dowry."

Imrahil squeezed her arm. "That is of no importance."

"It is, Imrahil." She hung her head, staring down at her lap and twisting her fingers together. Then, as if she had come to a decision, took a deep breath and looked back up at him. "I had a suitor once, but it was soon made plain to me that I am not acceptable to be the wife of a high lord. It upset me three years ago, I am older now, and I thought wiser. I tried hard not to fall in love with you because I didn't want to be hurt again. I failed... but it is better that I face the truth now."

"The truth is, Aearin, that nothing you have said changes anything." He hesitated, whatever had happened had obviously had a great effect on her. "But tell me, this man – did you love him?"

"I thought I did at the time, but I was very young. Maybe he dazzled me with his good looks and his title."

More than likely, if she was young and impressionable. "And his parents forbade the match."

She nodded.

"And your noble suitor meekly cow-towed to his parents."

Her face flushed red. "He said he couldn't go against them, and had realised that he owed it to his name to marry well...," she paused, finding difficulty in saying whatever was coming next. "... but that we could remain friends...more than friends."

Imrahil expelled a long breath: that explained a lot of things. "Then you were well rid of him."

"I know that, and I suppose that I hoped I would eventually meet a worthy man to whom my circumstances would not matter. I vowed never to hanker after the unobtainable again. And I had never done so until I met and fell in love with a prince."

He gave a short laugh. "And you have given that prince a very hard time."

She flashed him a brave smile, but her eyes were still clouded. "I'm sorry. I tried so hard not to show my feelings for you. For a moment I felt I was soaring high in the heavens, but all too soon my feet touched the earth again."

Imrahil took a strand of her hair, twisting the silken curl around his fingers. "I will always want you to soar, Aearin, and I want to be there with you. When I get home I will ask my mother to write to you. She will invite you to come to Dol Amroth as soon as your duties here are ended, so that you can be introduced to the court as my future wife. Will that convince you?"

Her tortured expression vanished, and her eyes lit.

"You are sure?"

He pulled her against him, cupped her face with one hand and tipped her chin up with his thumb so he could look closer into those lovely eyes. "I'm very sure," he whispered, leaning down to kiss her.

He didn't want to go, but after a while she pulled herself free.

"We must stop. Having set the house on its ears it wouldn't surprise me if Toreth didn't send to the castle for some men-at-arms to evict you."

"That will be an interesting end to my morning."

She laughed, and he kissed her again, withholding the passion that coursed through his body. He'd behaved badly enough for one day.

"Imrahil," she whispered as he nuzzled into her neck, "as nice as this is, you must go. My name will be black here. And my head is in a whirl. I really do have a headache now."

Aware that he had behaved abominably in forcing his way into her room, but not really sorry for it, Imrahil gathered her close again and dropped a kiss on her head. Aearin laid her head against his chest with a sigh, and a deep feeling of peace came over him. But some sense prevailed and as much as he wanted to stay like this, she was of course right – it would not do in her bedchamber. Anyway, the best thing might be to let her rest. It had been an eventful morning. He murmured into her hair. "I will come back later, and we can discuss everything sensibly. Don't worry about Lady Cuthwith, she will be pleased: I told her I expected to see her at our wedding!"

She leant back so that she could look up into his face. "What do you mean?"

Imrahil lifted an amused brow, and pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. "Who do you think told me you took an early morning walk?"

Her mouth opened in a soundless Oh. Imrahil laughed, took her face between his hands and kissed her gently. "I'll go, or your reputation will be past redemption. If I call again later will Lady Cuthwith be back?"

Aearin nodded, slightly breathless. "She's only gone to the market."

When Imrahil opened the door he was aware of a hubbub of voices. Reaching the top of the stairs, he saw that Lady Cuthwith and Mirineth had returned, and were surrounded by a gaggle of servants which included the maid and the porter. The dogs were joining in the hoo-ha, their tails thrashing madly from side to side as they eagerly welcomed their mistress. Looking up and seeing him, Lady Cuthwith waved the servants away. With a livid glance in his direction, Toreth flounced off, the others following her. Imrahil bounded down the stairs to face the lady of the house – he only hoped she would see the funny side. But when he met her eyes she responded with a lift of her chin. "I hear you have been upsetting my household, lord..."

He opened his mouth to apologise, only stopping when he caught the twinkle in her eyes. Lady Cuthwith carried on, bestowing him an amused smile ... "but I am prepared to overlook the behaviour of a man deeply in love."

He laughed, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks, and reached out to fondle the dogs who had deigned to greet him. "I hope I will be welcome to call on Lady Aearin during the rest of my stay."

"Of course, lord." She fixed him with steely gaze, "But I do not think it wise that you converse in her bedchamber!"

Hiding a smile, he bowed. "I assure you, my lady, that I have no intention of doing so."

At that Mirineth let out a gurgle of laughter. "Are you really going to marry Aearin? How wonderful."

Imrahil grinned, and flicked her cheek with a careless finger. "I am. And I hope that everything works out as well for you."

Moments later he was riding back onto the road, waving a cheery goodbye to the gatekeeper. In only a few hours his life had changed.

Dol Amroth

The scribe reverently turned the pages, studying the ancient text with a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. After a few moments he put the book back with the others. "It's a task I shall enjoy doing, lord," the man said, running his hand gently over the faded leather. "It will be an honour to copy such work as this."

Imrahil left him with an appreciative nod, reluctant to let go of the set of books which were his only tangible link to Aearin. He had only been home a few days, but he missed her terribly, even though most of his waking hours had been full. But today he had no major tasks. Oriel had been settled with his sister; his father and the rest of their knights had been regaled again and again with his firsthand account of the attack on Umbar, and he had answered all his mother's questions as to the health and welfare of her daughter and grandson. He'd fended off his father's questions on Mirineth, but now was the time to enlighten his parents to the fact that they would soon be having a new daughter.

Imrahil headed for his father's study, knowing that at this hour his mother and father generally shared a quiet time to answer letters and talk over the running of the Palace. He knew he probably should approach the matter differently, but some perverseness in his nature had always made him rebel against the accepted way of things. At least when it meant forcing him to do what he didn't like to do. And being a Prince, which he admitted he generally enjoyed, meant much of his life was controlled by his circumstances, and liable to be more so in the future. Therefore, in this, which affected him so intimately, he intended to have his way and take pleasure in the surprise his announcement would incur.

His mother and father were drinking tea cosily together, but both welcomed him with a smile when he entered the room after no more than a soft knock. Imrahil waved aside the offer to send for another cup, kissed his mother on the cheek and pulled up a chair beside her.

"I thought you would be out riding," his father volunteered.

"I shook the fidgets out of Blade last evening," Imrahil told him. "I'll take another out later, there's plenty that need a gallop."

"Then why are you here this fine morning?" his father quizzed him. "You usually keep well away from the boring parts of government."

Too true, but for how much longer he would be allowed to do so... "I decided to take you up on your suggestion, father...," Imrahil launched in and then stopped. Not finding it quite as easy as he'd thought.

"And which suggestion was that, my son," his father enquired, with a flick of his brows.

"The one that it was time I got married."

His mother gave a little gasp, but his father's expression never altered. "I am overwhelmed that you took my advice to heart, Imrahil," he said after a short silence. "And I assume that your efforts in that direction account for the lengthy sojourn in Linhir on the way home?"

Trust his father to be well informed! Imrahil worked hard to hide the ready laughter that threatened to erupt. "Yes, it does, I thought you would be pleased."

His mother clutched his arm, "Have you settled the matter, Imrahil, shall I write to Lady Mirineth? More importantly, will I like her?"

"Of course you will, my dear," his father interrupted impatiently, "Ecthelion recommended her."

Imrahil put on a contrived expression of total bewilderment – his father didn't know everything. "I definitely want you to write to her, Mother, to assure her of a welcome. But it's not Lady Mirineth to whom I have betrothed myself. No, her name is Lady Aearin of Lanthir, and you will like her very much..."


"!" Elphir interrupted his narrative and brought him back the present. His son shook his head in disbelief. "I'll never forget the shocked expression on your face when I brought Meren home unannounced."

"Paid with my own coin, wasn't I?" Imrahil chuckled. He looked across to Meren who met his eyes a little apprehensively. "Let me assure you, my dear, that the best thing Elphir has ever done was to marry you."

Elphir squeezed his wife's hand. "She's a treasure, isn't she?"

Meren blushed prettily. "I want to know if Lady Mirineth was allowed to wed her sea-captain. I am sure she would have contrived to do so."

"Yes, she did," Imrahil reassured her. "Glavror capitulated with his mother on her side. I went to the bridal celebrations a few months later and brought Aearin home with me." He became lost in thought for a moment – twenty-two happy years, five pregnancies and four children. It could have been a lot worse.

"The one thing that puzzles me," Elphir broke in again, "is that although I was aware that mother had an ancestor who fought with Eärnil, and that the family had lost its lands, I knew nothing of the books. Why did I never know of their existence until today?"

Imrahil hesitated, but Aragorn stepped in addressing Elphir. "The copies are in the private library in the King's House. I never realised you had no knowledge of them, but as for the originals, I assumed they were here." He turned to Imrahil with a question in his eyes.

Imrahil sighed, finding it difficult to explain the importance of the books to him, and why he had kept them from his children all these years. "They are safe, locked in a chest in my study. I would have told you of them earlier of course, but when your mother died you were all reasonably young. The books were, and still are, precious to me, and in my grief I kept them close. Later, we had all that trouble with Umar and I thought ... well, I thought it best for Lothíriel not to know she had ancestors from Harad."

"Oh, come on, Father," Elphir scoffed. "That was hundreds of years ago, it wouldn't matter a jot to her."

"Now, it wouldn't of course," Imrahil agreed, "but then ..."

"Green eyes!" Meren interrupted with a gasp. "You told us that the women in Aearin's family that were fey had unusual green eyes. Lothíriel always wondered why hers were so different, you must tell her, Father."

Imrahil smiled. "I will, I'll tell her before she goes to live in Rohan. And I'll let you look at the books, Elphir. Perhaps we'll have more copies made." He should have told his son before and felt better for having done so. And better for recounting the early days, his children needed to know as much as they could about their mother. He grinned and flashed a mocking glance at Aragorn. "You led me into a lot of trouble."

Aragorn laughed, and then directed his eyes to where two women were making their way towards them. Imrahil started to stand, watching the two ladies approach – Marin, the war-widow with whom Sergion was enjoying a profitable relationship, and Calaerdis. He inwardly sighed: eighteen years since he'd lost Aearin, and he had never stopped missing her – Lothíriel's wedding had brought bitter-sweet memories, and heart rending moments thinking how Aearin would have been so proud of their daughter.

But neither Lothíriel nor his sons wanted or expected him to spend the rest of his life alone. Calaerdis smiled as she got nearer. She looked much like Aearin: her black hair, her fine bone structure, the same graceful posture... and just as awkward too. The Lady of Dol Amroth in all but name – but reluctant to give up her freedom to marry him.

Why did he always have the hard time?

The end

See Tide of Destiny for more about Calaerdis.

My heartfelt thanks, as always, goes to Lia for her unstinting