Imrahil followed his new liege-lord into the chamber, holding himself a step back from the dais. He locked his eyes on the tapestries hung close around them as if for warmth, or the Great Throne just visible behind them, or even on Halbarad, Aragorn’s kinsman, who held such a firm grasp on the other man’s attentions. In truth, Aragorn could not look away, though he had just a strong enough grasp on himself to keep from reaching out.
For his part, Imrahil counted the Haradric spear-tips at Halbarad Halbelegsson’s feet (twenty-seven), noted the plain oaken staff in his hand he recognized as the one that had borne the king’s standard up from Ethring. Anything not to look at the other man of the north laid out just to his left in the clean woolen tunic of forest-green.
There would be time for that later. He would swear to it, if he had anyone at hand he could burden as witness. He would make the time. For Théoden, his cousin and his friend, he would find it. Even in days as full as those were sure to be.
But Imrahil knew, even then, that he needed more than memory and memorializing – he needed wise words from lips still warmed by brazen breath. (The familiar cadence that had come so naturally to Théoden’s folk clambered in his head, and Imrahil felt his breath catch.) This Halbarad had brought Hope to Gondor, but he’d sailed in on Corsair ships – ships whose previous owners held on to a special hatred for Dol Amroth. And their oath to Sauron would only bind them so well. It was all too likely they’d sent their sister ships to harry Imrahil’s folk before they ever made their way up Anduin. And of course Imrahil had dispatched messengers that very evening, to gather some word of the son he’d left behind to rule in his place, but it would be long days before word reached him, even if they met Amrothos’s own messengers on the road.
By the stars, how he longed for his friend’s hand clapped around his shoulders, his strong grasp on his forearm. But Denethor was dead, and Finduilas and Boromir, and the healer’s were laying even odds on whether Faramir would join them by the night’s end. And now Théoden? Imrahil bit at his lip, and fixed his eyes on the tapestry before him, on Castamir’s ships beneath their black sails turned south by Eldacar’s warriors with their bright-tipped spears, as he tried to allow his duties subsume him.
Later, days later, he made his way to the Houses of Healing, a small wooden parcel tucked under his paige’s arm. He’d endured interminable planning sessions with Éomer and Aragorn, Húrin and Gandalf and others besides; and, in much more useful endeavors, saw to the provisioning of his swan-knights and visit his own wounded in the hospital set up in the abandoned marketplace, down in the Fourth Circle. He’d stopped in to see Faramir twice in that time, found him sleeping but breathing more easily the first, and with the high flush of fever all but gone by the second. If some inquisitive ward-nurse were to ask, he could just claim he was there for a third visit.
Not that any would be so bold. Nor would it explain the parcel in young Harthor’s care.
No; it was a gift, and a relic – a talisman, some would say. It was a game of strategy, with knights and captains and clerics carved in white and black, cleverly fashioned to stick in slots so a soldier or mercenary could fold up the game and carry it with him. It was hardly so fine as fine as the one Ecthelion and Denethor had played on (a beautiful gift from a Haradric emissary, that, from a time when such diplomatic exchanges still happened), not worthy of a prince perhaps, but a prized possession nonetheless. Théoden had sold a colt and bought two sets off a trader from the South, one of the last who still ventured into Pelargir, one of the last who still ventured so far north; and he’d given one to Imrahil as a birthday-gift, the summer before Thengel had moved his family back to Rohan. To Imrahil’s hope this board was – had always been – a last gasp of hope before war tore it away, the audacious hope that battle might play out with ivory rather than flesh.
A fool’s hope, he told himself with a bitter laugh. Yet Mithrandir had used that phrase often enough; and that wizard had brought his nephew back to him, not once but twice and against all odds. So perhaps not so foolish after all.
In his pocket was Théoden’s last move, found scrawled on a piece of flint in his saddle-bags: king’s knight to C7. And in his mind, a ploy of his own: Éomer had seemed weary beyond endurance at their last council-session, and was sure to be asleep, but his sister perhaps would be tired of her bed and welcome a distraction. She’d known him better than Éomer had – better than any that still lived – and knew too the trials of waiting on news. And perhaps she’d learned the game, too, from her uncle if not from the grandmother who’d once tutored them both.
C7 was a foolish move, easily countered, so much so that he’d wondered what long game Théoden had been plotting. Still, as a gambit it might serve to tease something out of this kin he’d never before met. Or perhaps that was a fool’s hope thrice over. He supposed only time would tell; and until he was proven wrong, he’d take that chance.
Note the First: To my knowledge, there’s nothing in canon about Morwen Steelsheen’s background. I’ve always loved the idea that she was somehow related to Imrahil’s family.
Note the Second: In addition to being a literally true description of the situation, I had a bit of Trek in mind with the title: “Shaka, when the walls fell.” Those of you well-versed in Trek lore may revel in our shared geekiness.