“Will he be all right, Cuilast?”
“I can’t think why he wouldn’t be, Captain. I took the stitches out last night.”
Captain Andrahar’s new war horse was trotting obediently beside the wagon seat where Brand perched.
“Would you like to ride, lad?” Brand grinned gleefully.
“YES, sir!” And he halfway stood, grasped the arm the captain extended back behind him, and slid onto the horse behind his guardian.
“Hold tight,” Andrahar told him, a bit unnecessarily, for the boy was already sliding his arms about the commander’s waist, feeling the rigidity of mail and padding beneath the velvet tabard. “Are you settled?” the Swan Knight asked after a moment.
“Yes, sir.” The captain reined the horse away from the wagon and onto the grassy verge of the road.
“Would you like to go faster?”
“Oh, yes!” Andrahar chuckled at his enthusiasm, and put the stallion into a slow canter. They rode up the side of the column of horsemen, and Brand whooped. The horse flattened his ears slightly at that, and quickened its pace. The boy looked at the Swan Knights as they passed, and saw many of them grinning back at him, but only after the captain passed, that Andrahar might not see.
The Captain’s lad, they called him, meaning nothing but good by it. “For we are all the Captain’s lads, to some extent,” Lord Liahan had said in his quiet way. Liahan himself had been sent to foster at Dol Amroth when he was eight, and regarded Andrahar as something of a surrogate father, though he had a perfectly good relationship with his own family.
Captain’s lad or not, however, Brand had been kept busy at the books since they had departed Pelargir. Serl had come with his mother and father to say good-bye to him that last morning, and to thank Captain Andrahar for Serl’s schooling, which thanks the commander had acknowledged with grave courtesy. “You can write to Serl as well, you know,” Andrahar had told his ward, and both boys found this idea most pleasing, and something of a consolation for the fact that they must part.
However, the actual act of learning to read was more difficult than Brand had anticipated. Cuilast gave him lessons in the covered hospital wagon every day, and the captain frequently asked for displays of his knowledge. So long as it was apparent that Brand was applying himself, Andrahar was satisfied, even if it seemed that the boy was not making swift progress, but woe betide him if Cuilast reported that he was shirking! He had only done that once, and the quiet, scathing talking-to he’d received had been far worse than any beating Jacyn had ever administered. Never again, he’d sworn to himself after that, and since that time had given Andrahar no cause to reprimand him.
Already possessed of a strong work ethic, he had offered to help with the wagon teams, but as the captain was adamant that he do nothing which would pull the stitches out of his healing injury, his options were somewhat limited. But he could curry with his uninjured hand, and helped when they cleaned the harness in the evening, for that he could do with the pieces lying on a table before him. Swan Knights, as he had already noted, spent a great deal of time cleaning and polishing things, and they traveled for six days and rested on the seventh. Or rather, traveled for six days, found a source of water on the seventh and did incredible amounts of laundry!
Everything was tidied up on that seventh day, and between that and the daily sorts of cleaning that went on, Brand began to understand how they looked always looked so fine. He found himself subject to sudden cleanliness inspections himself. At any time, his nails or hair or teeth or the area behind his ears might come under scrutiny. He quickly became accustomed to the necessity of thorough daily bathing, in order to avoid uncomfortable encounters with a scrub brush. And to the luxury of having clean clothes to wear every single day.
Cuilast had told him that Captain Andrahar was not an overly friendly fellow, and that was certainly true, but as the days passed, he found little to fault about his new guardian. Andrahar was not often with him during the day--he and Peloren were taking turns supervising the new recruits--but he checked on the boy from time to time, and there was always a place beside him for Brand at the campfire at night. Brand enjoyed those times the best, for the Knights would talk about their recent exploits in Minas Tirith and at the Black Gate. That war was not glorious, even in such glorious company, was something that quickly became apparent to the boy as he listened to the seasoned warriors talk. And he began to understand the truth of what his mother had told him, and a little bit of what he was letting himself in for, should he choose this path. A goodly number of those extra horses were available because their masters were dead.
The captain would let him listen until he started yawning and getting heavy-eyed, and then would send him off to the tent they shared; but one night, when he was tired but wanted to hear the end of a story, Andrahar simply pulled him against his shoulder, draped his cloak about him and let him rest there till the tale’s end. And when, halfway to Dol Amroth, Brand had the wave dream again, he awoke not to Jacyn’s cursing and cuffing, but rather to a soothing voice and a bit of something to eat and drink. That had served to send him swiftly back to a dreamless rest, and he found it a vast improvement upon his former circumstances.
No, Brand had no complaints, and now, sitting behind the captain upon his stallion, he realized that he was happy, despite missing his mother and his siblings, and despite not being entirely sure of what awaited him in Dol Amroth. The Swan Knights and the sergeants had tried to describe the city to him-- the Pearl of Belfalas, the seat of Prince Imrahil the Fair--but it sounded more fable than fact.
“Faster, lad?” Andrahar called over his shoulder.
“Please!” came the reply and the captain urged his stallion into a gallop. Brand gripped him more tightly, and laughed. They swept past the van of the column, and thundered up a long, gradual slope. Reaching the top and starting down the other side, Andrahar slowed the horse till he danced restlessly in place beneath them. Brand, peering around his back, could see down the hill and over the lands below, to the expanse of the Sea stretching to the horizon. A breeze from the west brought the scent of it to him for the first time, and the faint cries of gulls flying inland. There was a hill by the bay, and on the hill was a white city, shimmering in the afternoon light. Upon the summit was a castle whose towers seemed to the boy to touch the sky.
“Is that Dol Amroth?”
“Yes, lad, that’s home.”
Brand was not so certain of that yet, but when the company reached the city gates a couple of hours later, there were many folk upon the walls calling a joyful welcome to their Swan Knights come home from the war. The Swan Knights entered their city singing, as they always did, and Brand was singing with them.