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1
Chapter One

Many thanks to Altariel for encouragement, to E.W. for telling me what to leave out, and particularly to Dwimordene and her Blue Text of Doom. This story was very hard to write and went through many versions before I threw up my hands in despair and brought my talented betas on board.


~~~

March 24, 3019

Many are the rituals Men use to warn Death away the night before a battle, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth reflected, as he paced the outer perimeter of the camp. There were eerie voices echoing through the night outside of the camp; some beastlike, others that might have been men once or in part. The noises unnerved the soldiers who were trying to sleep within the ring of encircling watch-fires, and dampened any enthusiasm for drink or games of chance that others were indulging in. The air was still and chill. Laughter and song fell flat and joyless in such an atmosphere. Half-obscured by the fog and fume, the crescent moon shone with a sickly pallor, but no stars could be seen. The land upon which the Army of the West camped this night had been occupied by evil for so long that an aura of corruption seemed to exude from every grain of gritty soil.

That corruption pressed upon Imrahil’s senses. He wondered idly what he would see here if he tried to actively use his gift of foresight, but was not much inclined to succumb to the temptation. His dreams of late had been troubled and confused, half doom-laden, half hopeful. He suspected that the Army of the West stood upon a cusp of events and that fate could fall evenly either way. And his visions were seldom specific enough to be useful in any event. He was of more worth to the king as an advisor than a prophet. As he walked, he lifted his head from time to time, wishing in vain for a clean breeze from the West to blow the murk away. There was an acrid taint to the air that parched the mouth.

Mail and helm had been left back at his tent, for he was weary of the weight. He knew all too well about the scolding that awaited him when his sworn brother discovered his carelessness. And perhaps he was tempting fate, though whatever it was that circled the camp seemed more inclined to howl than attack, and Swansong was in its accustomed place at his side.

A White Horse banner hung limp and lifeless upon a tall pole in the center of the Rohirrim encampment. Peering through the spaces between the tents, Imrahil could see a great many Riders clustered about the large central campfire. Éomer was enthroned there in his heavy carven chair, and a song was being sung. A lament for fallen warriors, it went better in this place than most songs might. Drink was being passed from hand to hand, and for a moment he thought about joining the Rohirrim for a bit. Éomer would welcome me. He got on surprisingly well with the young king of Rohan; perhaps because they were very different personalities.

No. Éomer might indeed welcome me, but I would still be an intruder. This night is for them.

So instead, he made his way past the Rohirrim, to where the sable and silver of Gondor graced the men sitting about the campfires. He was not their rightful liege lord, but as the last unwounded kinsman of the late Steward the authority was his for a time to command them, and they had followed where he and Aragorn had led without complaint.

His own habit the night before a battle was to see to his men, and so he spent some time moving from fire to fire, speaking to the soldiers, sharing a drink or a jest, assuring himself that they were as well-fed and comfortable as they could be here on the Enemy’s doorstep, humbled all over again by their courage. Any who would have quailed at this journey had already left the army, tasked by Aragorn with the re-taking of Cair Andros. The men who remained had weathered the retreat from Osgiliath, the siege, the battle on the Pelennor, and now walked open-eyed into a trap, hoping that their sacrifice would insure the survival of their loved ones.

Imrahil saved his Swan Knights for last-the men he’d grown up and trained with, the younger men he’d helped train himself. Little speech was required among such comrades-in-arms; some fond reminiscences and good wishes sufficed, and the rest of the time was spent in silent companionship, staring into the fire. Eventually, he forced himself to return to his tent, that he might at least try to find a little rest. There, he found Elphir busily writing at his traveling desk; and Andrahar sharpening his blades. The rasp of that whetstone had been Imrahil’s accompaniment upon many a night before battle, and he found the noise comforting rather than annoying.

“Who are you writing to?” he asked his son as he entered. “Mariel?”

“No. Alphros,” came Elphir’s response, as he scribed intently without lifting his head. A chill ran through the Prince. Andrahar’s whetstone stopped, and silence fell. After a moment, Elphir looked up. “I shall tear it up tomorrow evening.” His voice was calm, and after a moment both his father and honorary uncle nodded. Andrahar resumed his sharpening.

An esquire, his face pale and weary, peeked into the tent. “My lord prince, I have some hot water for you, if you wish to wash. Not enough for a bath, but enough to sponge the dirt away.” Clean water was a valued commodity in this place, and to use even such a small amount for bathing, even if one were a prince, was perhaps an indulgence. But Imrahil was a fastidious man, and grateful for the opportunity.

“Thank you. Have you enough that you could bring some for Prince Elphir and the Commander as well?”

“We have already had ours, Imrahil,” Andrahar interjected. “We are fresh as the proverbial flowers-as is your armor, since you left it here and your esquire took advantage of the opportunity to clean it. I am sure that having brightly polished armor to wear into your grave would have been a consolation, had something out there had arms to shoot with as well as a mouth to screech with!” His irritation was palpable, and a far cry from his usual pre-battle calm.

“Peace, Andra,” the Prince responded. “All is well, at least for now. I suspect the Enemy cannot be troubled with us tonight. Not when we intend to march so conveniently into his grasp tomorrow.” A couple of murmured commands were made to the esquire, one of them being that the young man should try to get some sleep, then Imrahil was stepping behind the screen that had been set up around the washstand, and stripping his soiled clothing off. Goosebumps rose upon his flesh as the chilly air touched his skin. Hot water and towels were quickly delivered, and also, to his amusement, a bar of Andrahar’s famous and long-coveted soap.

“Aha! So I finally get to use some of this?”

“Well, it is a special occasion,” came the grudging reply, before the whetstone took up its task again.

The last night of our lives, in all likelihood, the Prince thought, as he began to wash. I suppose it is special enough, at that. Looking down at his body, he found it fit, and not uncomely for a man of his years, and suddenly had to fight back the surge of sickening awareness that came upon even the most experienced soldiers from time to time, of what swords and axes, spears and arrows could do to that body in the course of battle. He had no desire to end a corpse upon a charnel pile, or a troll’s main course for supper. As he washed, he tried to suppress the queasy feeling, and by the time he was done through force of long habit had pretty much succeeded. After the cat-bath, Imrahil decided to get dressed once more, both for warmth and to expedite matters in the morning. As he came back out into the main part of the tent Elphir was folding and sealing his letter, and Andrahar, having finished his sword, was now working upon his knives.

The Armsmaster looked up as he came out and paused once more in his work, frowning slightly. After a moment, he laid aside knife and whetstone, got up and came over to Imrahil, staring at his shirt.

“Of all the white shirts you’ve inflicted upon me over the years, I remember this one particularly well. I thought you had put it away for safe-keeping.”

“I had. I took it out of storage to bring with me when we rode to Minas Tirith.”

Elphir rose as well and came over to examine the garment. His eyebrows flew up in surprise.

“I remember Mother making that for you! It took her the better part of a winter to do it, those swans gave her so much trouble.” The shirt was a linen arming shirt, of a weight appropriate for a garment that would get hard use, but the cuffs and collar opening were bound in a finer linen that was embroidered with an exquisite border design of pairs of swans with their necks entwined together.

“Indeed they did,” Imrahil said with a reminiscent smile. “T’was as close as I ever saw her come to cursing. But the result is beautiful, is it not?”

“She told me once it was the only way she could make war beautiful,” Nimrien’s son said softly. The prince looked lovingly at his firstborn, the son everyone said resembled him the most. But Imrahil could see very clearly traces of his late wife about the eyes and corners of the mouth, and in the unruly, slightly curly hair, not quite so dark as his own.

“Indeed it is. As beautiful as were the other things she made for me…and with me.” He gathered his son into his arms suddenly and clasped him close. “I apologize, Elphir, for bringing you with me into this. I should have sent you home to Dol Amroth.”

The Heir to Dol Amroth shook his head against his father’s shoulder. “I would not have gone. It is my place to be here, with you.”

“But if things are to end, it would have been better for you to be with Mariel and Alphros.”

Elphir gave him a hard squeeze, then released him. “Everyone here has left loved ones behind, Father. You would have shamed me had you granted me special favor because of my position. By oath, you were bound to bring all of your Swan Knights to Minas Tirith, and I am a Swan Knight. I had to come. And once here, the need was too great for me to return. Besides, your children would not have left you alone in this-we all decided that among ourselves long ago. You had need of the soldier, not the sailor or the scholar, so it fell to me to accompany you. Mariel understands, as do my brothers and sister.”

Resigned humor twinkled in the Prince’s eyes. “Was I to have no say in the matter at all then?”

“No. No more than about whether Uncle Andra would be with you or not.” There came a snort from the Armsmaster, and Imrahil shook his head ruefully.

“Well, if I have no choice, then I can see that we’d both better look after each other tomorrow. For if we were to fall, and ‘Chiron had to come ashore to become the Prince, he would never forgive either of us.”

“Indeed not!” Elphir laughed, and his father was glad to hear the genuine mirth in his voice. Andrahar reached out and lifted Imrahil’s wrist, examining the cuff on the shirt once more.

“My mother used to do such fine work. The last shirt she made me was not unlike this one, save that it was a dress shirt, and there were little tigers rather than swans. So-you would have your lady with you on the morrow, at least in spirit?”

“I would.”

“Perhaps she will bring you good fortune.” There was an odd tone to his voice that Imrahil would have said was almost forlorn, if he could ever have imagined Andrahar being forlorn. And his usual boundless energy seemed quenched tonight. A tendril of fear curled around the Prince’s heart. I have seen men who believed they were going to die in battle. They looked much as Andra does tonight. Has he had some sort of premonition?

The Armsmaster released the Prince’s hand suddenly and turned away towards the stand upon which his armor was racked, to check it over once more. Imrahil’s eyes followed him, concerned.

“You have no such token to bear with you, do you, Andra?” he asked softly, in sudden realization.

“I have his last letter, the one that Faramir gave me,” came the somewhat brusque reply. “I will bear that with me for luck. But otherwise, no-there were no gifts exchanged between us. It would have been unwise. Any token I gave him might have been questioned by his father, and while I was not subject to the same concern, I would not accept gifts where I could not give them in return. And I was not a woman to be wooed with presents in any event.”

“You will see him again one day, Uncle,” Elphir said, responding to the pain in Andrahar’s voice. “Not any time soon, hopefully. But one day you will.”

The Armsmaster’s hands paused in their work of running over his hauberk to check links, and he turned to face his former pupil, eyebrow cocked.

“Whatever makes you think that, Elphir? I am Haradrim, or had you forgotten?”

Elphir had always been a very self-possessed young man from a very early age. His position as his father’s heir had demanded it. But the sudden harshness in Andrahar’s tone took him aback, and he actually stammered as he replied, “Well…actually…yes, I had. I do not think of you as anything other than ‘Uncle’ most of the time.”

Andrahar’s manner softened a bit. “Thank you for that, lad. But it does not change the fact that in the end, you are Gondorrim and I am Haradrim. Your people have their own fates that befall them after death, and mine do as well. And they are not the same. Your sea-mad folk believe that a ship takes your dead to some unknown destination. Mine believe our ancestors dwell with the Sacred Fire in the highest vault of the heavens. And that if our deeds are worthy, upon our deaths we will be accepted there as well.”

“I have studied the beliefs of your people, for I have had much to do with them in both espionage and diplomacy,” the Heir to Dol Amroth said quietly. “I have heard of that belief, of course. And I remember what you did when you killed your half-brother on the Pelennor. Were you not sending him to his ancestors then?”

“Yes. A favor that would not have been extended to me, I think, had our situations been reversed.”

“Is that something that we would need to do for you, should you be mortally wounded?”
Elphir looked slightly queasy at the idea of ramming a dagger into his beloved foster-uncle’s heart, but Andrahar shook his head.

“T’would serve no purpose, Elphir. My ancestors would not accept me in any event.”

“Why say you that?”

“Because I was never accepted by my kin, and most particularly because of the kin and countrymen that I have slain. How many do you suppose I sent to the halls of their ancestors during the battle on the Pelennor alone? The greater powers have no use for traitors. When I die, my spirit will wail formless in the outer darkness for eternity, along with all the other cursed souls. A good reason to stay alive for as long as possible, don’t you think?” Andrahar’s voice was calm again and matter-of-fact, but his eyes were dark as they could be. The Heir, seeing this, frowned and Imrahil watched, silent and troubled.

“Such a fate hardly seems just to me!” Elphir protested. “You are the most honorable man I know, Uncle Andra! How could you deserve such a destiny? And since your kin have abandoned you-nay, have actively sought to slay you-why should you hold to the beliefs of your people? Or feel that powers that abandoned you have a right to judge you still?” His first-born son, Imrahil reflected, was nowhere near as far-ranging or as dedicated a scholar as his third son Amrothos. But in the matter of people and their motivations, Elphir was every bit as curious and keen an observer as ‘Rothos. And these were questions he had never had the opportunity to ask his sworn uncle before.

Andrahar shrugged. “The habits of childhood are hard to break, and your Valar have always been rather inconsistent and incomprehensible to me. Besides, I have had proof that the Valar will not answer my pleas, and that I belong to the Fire.”

“What sort of proof?” Elphir pressed. The Prince felt some curiosity about the answer himself, for they were traveling into unknown territory even for him. Andrahar confided more to him than to any other person alive; yet still there were things his blood brother chose not to reveal.

The Haradrim sighed, left off his armor inspection, and moved to where chairs surrounded the small table whereon they had eaten their supper. It had long since been cleared, but a decanter of brandy and some goblets stood upon it. He poured himself a glass and sank wearily into a chair. The Dol Amroth men followed him, and did likewise.

“You know what happened when your uncle Denethor discovered that Boromir and I had been lovers,” he said, after taking a slow and appreciative sip of the brandy. Elphir nodded, for he had been apprised by his father of the conditions that had been laid upon both the Prince and upon Boromir-including the soon discarded clause about Elphir coming to Minas Tirith as a hostage. “I was forbidden from ever meeting with Boromir in private again, but when he was leaving the City, he came upon my company doing drills on the Pelennor, and we were able to say good-bye to each other. Esteven was there, but he was discreet.”

Another nod from the young prince. Andrahar looked up at Imrahil then, almost reluctantly, it seemed, and the Prince gave him an encouraging smile.

“I was wroth and sorrowful, and in my anger and sorrow, I did something very unwise. I invoked the powers of your Valar to protect my beloved, and I called the Sacred Fire down upon Lord Denethor. "‘Twas blasphemous that I do so: one does not invoke such powers if one does not believe in them, for they will turn upon the unfaithful."

“Thus, not only did the Valar not protect Boromir, he was slain in circumstances that might have been less than honorable. As for the Fire-it answered my prayer but it is a power heedless of the small wishes of men, and once unleashed, consumes as it pleases. Denethor was destroyed, but Faramir, whom I love, was also nearly burned.” His look across at Imrahil then contained something the Prince had never seen before-shame.

“I should not have done what I did, and I compounded my fault by not telling you of what I had done, Imrahil. But I will not go into the battle on the morrow with this between us.”

Elphir, who had been answered in much greater depth than he had bargained for, took an unwary gulp of brandy, barely managing to keep from choking. His beseeching look to his father mirrored many Imrahil had received over the years, from people who had had cause to have dealings with Andrahar. He is your sworn man. You are the only one who can manage him.

The Prince drank deeply of his own brandy, then took a moment longer to study the ruby depths before he raised his head to meet Andrahar’s gaze.

“Andra, you cannot blame yourself for Denethor’s death or for Faramir’s near-murder! I can see how it might seem to you that you were responsible. But bear in mind that Denethor had been influenced for a very long time by the palantir, and the visions that the Enemy caused him to see through it. And that it was he who chose to use it in the first place. He had the lawful right to do so, but it was not the wisest course of action. Had he been more willing to rely upon the council of others, and had less faith in the absolute correctness of his own judgement, he might never have come to such a pass.”

“But if it were truly Denethor’s choice, Imri, then why the burning? An excruciatingly painful way to die. Why settle upon that for himself and his son? Why do what my people do to their dead when they cannot give them to the desert?”

“Perhaps it was Sauron’s influence. He has always been overmuch fond of fire. But in any event, I refuse to believe that you cursed Denethor to death. Or Boromir, for that matter.” Imrahil shifted his glass from the right hand to the left, then reached out across the space between them to take Andrahar’s hand in his own, twining his fingers into his friend’s darker ones, hands palm to palm. Palms that were scarred from an oath made decades before.

“And as for you being cursed yourself for what you have done to your people, you must remember that you are of my people now. You are Andrahar of Dol Amroth, and you have kept your oaths and your faith. You will not wander in the outer darkness, I feel sure of it. You will be with me when the time comes, and we will find Boromir together.”

Andrahar bowed his head and squeezed Imrahil’s hand tightly. “It would be good if it were so,” he murmured, “though we will not know the truth of it until we are both dead, and I am in no hurry to prove you wrong. But know this-even if I do have to wander cursed by my ancestors, I would count it a small cost for what I have known with you and your family.” At this very rare admission Elphir arose, and setting aside his glass, came behind Andrahar’s chair and leaned over to embrace him. The Armsmaster, who was not a tactile person and seldom permitted such liberties, made no objection whatsoever, which gave Imrahil an indication of how truly despondent he was.

I have used him ill these last couple of weeks, he realized, suddenly ashamed. He was there for me, lending me strength, while Nimrien was dying and for a long time afterwards. But I did not return the favor when his time came to lose the one he dearly loved. We learned of Boromir’s death upon our arrival in Minas Tirith, and Andrahar went directly into the siege and the battle afterwards with no time to grieve-other than that brief moment with Faramir before he rode out to Osgiliath. Admittedly, events were pressing hard and fast, and there was little time for the luxury of grief. And he would not have allowed himself the indulgence. But I could have made him stop and talk about it after the battles, given him the opportunity to let out some of what has been troubling him. I should have done so. It was my duty to succor him as he had succored me. Instead, I leaned upon his strength as I have always done.

He watched the Armsmaster tip his head wearily back against Elphir’s shoulder, eyes closed, and wondered if Andrahar were imagining Elphir to be Boromir. Hair and height were similar, though Denethor’s first-born had been a broader, heavier man. His son was whispering something that Imrahil could not hear, and after a moment Andrahar nodded, and reached up to pat the arm that encircled his shoulders. It was one of the few awkward movements the Prince had ever seen him make.

“Thank you, Elphir,” he said, his voice rough with fatigue. “’Tis kind of you to speak so.”

“I would that I could do something to ease your heart, Uncle. It pains me to see you so despairing.”

“I am not despairing, lad,” came the quick denial. It did not ring entirely true to Imrahil. Andrahar opened his eyes and sighed. “Though I will own that I wish I knew how Boromir met his end. The King has kept his own counsel upon the matter, and I fear that he may have good reason for doing so. Nonetheless, I would prefer to know what befell Boromir, for good or ill, than to imagine what happened. But I think that we will never have the opportunity to find out now-the time to question the Lord Aragorn has passed.”

The Prince of Dol Amroth set his drink down and got to his feet. In all the years I have known him, in all his decades of faithful service, Andrahar has requested something for himself fewer times than the fingers upon one hand. He strode to the hook on the center pole where hung his blue cloak and swung it around his shoulders. Son and sworn brother looked up in surprise.

“Imrahil, where are you going?”

“Father?”

“I will return shortly. Bide here until I do. I promise that I will not leave the inner encampment, Andra, so you need not fear for me.” He swept out of the tent, ignoring the Swan Knight sentries who snapped to attention as he did so, and started towards the large pavilion which bore the Tree and Stars of Gondor.

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