The dinner was uncomfortable in every respect. The food, of course, was the finest at the command of the Prince of Dol Amroth, and even the hobbits of the distant Shire, if such a people and such a place truly existed, could not have wished for better. But I scarcely tasted it. I thought of the preparations I had set into motion, to depart only two mornings hence, and whether I and my men had thought of everything we would need for this journey. I thought of how uncomfortable a captain’s tabard, with full insignia of rank, could be, particularly when one was taking such great pains to avoid creasing it, or soiling it with the fine food I was barely tasting. But mostly, I thought of how to explain to the Lady Shadryn what was to happen next.
She was, by all accounts, a tempestuous young woman, used to getting her own way and prone to doing as she wished regardless of what she was told. My brother, who served in the Armory, told me that she was renowned as much for her temper as for her beauty, but more than either for her mischief — it seems she didn’t just ignore when she was told what to do or not do, she deliberately flouted orders, even from the Prince himself, and particularly when it came the proper manners of the court. She could wear a fine evening gown and dine at a dinner party if she had to, but as often as not she would skip it to go riding or be found digging in the dirt.
As she sat across from me, having scarcely even glanced at me between moments of expressing her irritation at having been forced to dine here on such short notice, I could think of nothing but the challenges this might present in dangerous lands. One expects soldiers to be ready to act quickly, without second-guessing, when a Captain gives orders, and lives depend on that; but you could not expect that from civilians, and none more so than a spirited noblewoman with a contrary streak.
I saw the Prince glance at me now and then, and the smile was still in his eyes, filled with an amused sympathy at my discomfort and my plight. The Princess seemed more anxious, and her eyes rested more on Lady Shadryn than me, though for her part Shadryn took no notice of any of this. She had, apparently, made plans for a ride to the beacon of Amon Lontir with a friend, and was quite cross at having instead to change into her new evening gown of resplendent, shimmering sapphire-hued silk, and have her hair put up in a delicate net of diamonds and silver, at Lothíriel’s insistence. From time to time she started to ask if she might, should she finish her supper quickly enough, be excused in time for a short ride before nightfall, but the Prince shook his head with such stern authority that she rarely even got as far as starting the question.
But as dishes were being cleared away and sweet wine served, her impatience began to rise. I cleared my throat, and in my mind I heard the sound as the winding of a horn of battle, to raise the spirits of a newly-minted Captain about to hurl himself at a fierce troll. “My lady Shadryn, I have news of most urgency to impart to you,” I said, and my voice cracked only a hint.
At first she didn’t quite realize I was speaking to her. Despite being seated across from one another, we had not exchanged a word since introductions, and I wondered if she even remembered my name, having paid little attention when it was given. She soon dispelled my uncertainty on that point, as she spoke with exaggerated precision. “And what might that be, Captain Ioreld of the Army of Gondor, son of Eldethen and Ioreth?” Though her words echoed the herald’s when I had been introduced, down to the tiniest hint of cadence, her intonation fairly dripped with challenge.
The thought of what I had to say, and its import, buoyed my courage, so when I spoke it was with a clarity and certainty I had lacked but moments before. “A shadow rises, and war comes soon to Gondor. I have been given orders from the halls of the Steward himself, concerning a plot by the Corsairs of Umbar, which involves you.” Her eyes widened at this unexpected turn, for what had a young cousin of Lothíriel to do with war? I continued so as to answer the question before she could ask. “We have obtained intelligence suggesting a plot amongst the Corsairs to capture certain persons of noble birth, those who are not well-guarded or versed in the arts of war,” at this I cast a glance at the Prince, “but who might, if held for ransom, hurt, or killed, influence the actions of such persons.”
I expected this to take some time to be understood, but Lady Shadryn’s mind was as keen as my sword’s edge, and it was scarcely two beats of my heart before she spoke. “So they mean to capture me to compel the Prince to surrender Dol Amroth in exchange for my release?”
“That is one possibility,” I began, but I could not complete the thought, as her words were already tumbling into the next thought.
“Then there is no need, for the Prince would never surrender an entire city and its people for the sake of one person, not even a cousin of his daughter.” She spoke this as if it dismissed the entire discussion, and indeed, was turning her head towards the Prince, perhaps to ask if she could be excused in time for a brief moonlit ride.
“But it is only one possibility,” I continued as if she had not even interrupted, seeking to draw her back to the matter at hand. “More likely, however, they would use the threat of harm, or the actual act of harm, upon your person.” This caught her attention; her eyes turned back to me. “Should they capture you, or any of a score of other possible targets, the sight of you having suffered grievous injuries, torture and… other things too unspeakable to mention, might lead not to surrender, but instead, to poor decisions made in a moment of hurt and sadness. It is a deplorable act, but it is one that the men of Umbar often use to great effect, even upon one another, when they fall to internecine conflict.” Her eyes were darkening, so as I continued I tried to soften the blow. “Or they may ransom you, not for the surrender of the entire city, but for something lesser, such as the release of a prisoner of theirs, free passage through contested lands for their men, or something else of strategic worth. Whatever their intent might be, it has been decided that it is in Gondor’s best interest to prevent it.”
“If you are going to be hanging about me guarding me all the time, you had best at least know how to dance, and I hope you have some finer clothes than that,” she began, with a dismissive, irritated tone, as if she thought the very possibility a joke. “But why send some Captain from Minas Tirith when our own garrison is well-manned? Is not your brother one of the officers that serves here?”
The surprise that she even realized my family lineage, or knew that of the men in the Armory, or had connected the two, when moments ago I doubted she even knew my name, held me a moment, before I shook it off and made answer. “The orders from the Steward are not to guard you here in Dol Amroth, my Lady. We are to escort you to a remote land where you will be safe both from any kidnapping attempt and from whatever war is bound to come to Gondor. Two days hence you will leave Dol Amroth under the guard of myself and my unit, where we will journey to–”
That was as far as I got before the expected outburst. “Leave Dol Amroth?” she called out, and by now the entire hall was silent, even the servants clearing away dishes now paused in mid-stride. “Leave Gondor? Unacceptable! Why, I have a history lesson two days hence, and Lord Relemen is hosting a garden party next week, in the garden with those most unusual trees I’ve yet to see, and…”
As she started to trail off, I took the opportunity to cut in. “Nevertheless, my Lady, for your safety, that is the order of the Steward of Gondor. You will have tomorrow to make preparations and say your farewells. I and my men are at your disposal to help in any way we can with those preparations. Provisions are being laid for the journey, and the stable-master is readying your horse. We must perforce pack light as we will be traveling through dangerous wilderness and lands overrun with savage men before we reach our destination, so there will be no need for evening gowns and books and such finery. You must also–”
“What is our destination?” she said, eyes whirling back to me with the intensity of a bow fully drawn, arrow nocked and quivering on the string. “Surely wherever it is, I shall need books there.”
“We are bid to make way for Bree, which lies at the meeting of the Great East Road and the Greenway, in the lands that were once Arnor,” I explained. “It will be a journey of several months.”
“Bree!” she cried. “That is scarcely more than an outpost! I shouldn’t wonder if they do not even have a proper library.” She turned to the Prince, her eyes changing from demanding to pleading within the space of a heartbeat. “Surely this is not necessary, my Prince,” she asked. “I can be guarded well enough here, where I am kept safe within the mighty walls of one of the strongest, nay, the very strongest of all fortifications, under the benevolent guardianship of the Prince of Dol Amroth himself, and the finest garrison of soldiers Gondor has. You may safely send this diligent young Captain to more pressing matters and attend to my safety here, surely?”
The Prince shook his head. “If we could, it would only be at the cost of men and attention I cannot spare, dear. But it boots us nothing to discuss it. The Steward has decreed it, and thus it must be. You will make preparations and do all other things as this fine young Captain says, and you will furthermore, as you travel in his company, heed his word as strictly as do his own soldiers, for your life and safety depend upon it. In the wilds, when threatened by beasts, or men who are scarcely more than such, there is no time for argument.”
She turned and looked at me, and I could tell I was being weighed and coming up wanting. Her voice was full of defiance and vinegar. “I am a Lady of Dol Amroth. I shall not be given orders by a puppy of a Captain, like some filthy soldier–”
Much has been said of the Prince of Dol Amroth, but one thing that all agreed was that he was a man that men would follow, one who would brook no disrespect for the soldiers under his command. Even as these last words crossed her lips, Shadryn knew she had gone too far. She stopped herself, her eyes widening as she realized her own error, and she turned to see the Prince rising to his feet. The servants had all taken a silent step back from the table. The Prince’s voice was not of fire but of cold iron. “You will heed his words, and you will do so with gratitude towards the soldiers who will give their lives to save yours. And should you fail to do so, may the vultures take delight in your remains, for I shall shed no tears for any cousin of mine who can speak thus.” Lothíriel gasped slightly at these words, but everyone else remained silent as Imrahil turned and made his way from the hall.