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3
Edoras

Well! Took me long enough, didn't it? There will probably be another chapter in Edoras before I take Heth back on the road with the King. Bear with me.


~~~

Dinner was a pleasant enough affair, spent in Éowyn’s and Faramir’s company, and though no one was deprived as a result of my appetite, I gave a good accounting of myself at the table, judging from the admiring looks Merry and Pippin sent my way. But eventually my dinner companions went off somewhere together, to do things I did not want to think about too much, and as I had finally eaten my fill, I rose from the table and left Meduseld, going out the back door to seek my bed in the guest house.

But I never reached it, for I found a tall figure out behind the hall, looking down over the lamp lit town. Wisps of smoke, gleaming palely in the night, rose above him to vanish in the darkness. At the sound of my footsteps he turned towards me, and I could see the red glow in the bowl of his pipe.

“Ah, Hethlin. How fortunate I should encounter you here. I wanted to talk to you,” the King of Gondor said. “Would you walk with me?”

“Of course, sire,” I responded, willingly enough for I had stiffened a bit during dinner from the day’s journey and the afternoon’s exercise and thought a walk might be just the thing to loosen me back up before bedtime. Without further comment Aragorn started off around the outside of Meduseld, moving deftly around the few people also taking the night air, and I fell in beside him. After a moment, he shortened his lengthy stride to accommodate me, a courtesy I much appreciated. Despite his desire to speak to me, he said nothing until we had passed down the steps of the hall and were in the town proper, traveling down the main road beside the little stream. Then he wasted no time getting to the point.

“Hethlin, I owe you an apology.”

“My lord?”

“For forcing you into fealty to Imrahil. As I told you, I had my reasons, but I did not take into consideration the fact that I would be denying or at least delaying the chance for you to meet what family you had left. So if you wish to accompany Litharel north, you have my leave to do so, provided you can obtain Imrahil’s.”

“The Prince has already said that he would release me from my oath, my lord-provided I could obtain your consent.”

“Then it seems he and I are of one mind about this, which pleases me. I did not wish to trespass upon his authority again.” It seemed as if news of Swan Knight displeasure had gotten back to the King. I wondered by what agency it had done so.

The King looked down at me, his expression a bit guarded. “Imrahil spoke to me about you, did you know?”

I nodded. “He told me as much.”

“Would it trouble you to serve him, now that he has professed his love to you?”

“No, sir. Though he told me that he intended to stay away from Dol Amroth while I was in training, and that did trouble me. I would not wish to deprive him of his home and family. And I am sure there are things he needs to be doing there.”

Aragorn seemed unconcerned about that. “Nothing that his three grown sons can’t handle between them. And I can certainly use him in Minas Tirith for the next little while. His family travels frequently between Minas Tirith and Dol Amroth in any event-they have the means to do so swiftly and in relative comfort. I don’t think you will be depriving him of their company, at least not for long. So don’t worry yourself upon that account.” He was silent for a moment before he spoke again. “The match would please me, if you chose to make it. Despite the years between you, I think it would be a good one.” His wryly charming smile manifested. “But then, I have experienced the advantages of marriage to an older and wiser partner, and am perhaps prejudiced in that regard.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. But the mention of Arwen brought the greatest objection to my leaving Gondor to my mind. “Sir, if I go, then who will guard your wife?”

“If you recollect, Hethlin, I had not said that you would be her full-time bodyguard. It seems that there are any number of people willing to make Arwen’s well-being their priority. She has acquired many advocates over the last few weeks.” Knowing the Queen’s caring manner and earnest charm, and her way of making people feel they were important, that was easy enough to believe. “What I had hoped you would be is my insurance in more dangerous situations. And it is not fair to you to ask you to forego being with your family and learning of your heritage in the North for that. It is my duty to take those extra precautions, and I will do so.” Another moment’s silence. We were halfway down the hill now.

“Do you fancy Imrahil at all, Hethlin?”

Startled, I looked up at the King. “Why? Did he ask you to ask me?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” came the hasty assurance. “He would not do such a thing. I was just being unforgivably curious.”

To my dismay, I immediately started blushing. I hoped that the blush would be obscured by the gathering darkness. “I…respect the Prince,” I said at last, hesitantly. “As a friend, at the very least. And he is a very good kisser.” From the feel of the heat radiating off my face, the blush had deepened to scarlet. It was Aragorn’s turn to chuckle.

“I had heard about that. It is good to know that at least you do not find him repugnant.”

“Oh, never, sir!”

“I had wondered…” and the guarded expression was back on his face again, “I had wondered if perhaps you preferred my foster brother.”

“Elrohir? I…” Suddenly, every intimate evening I’d ever spent with Elrohir rose up in my mind in crystal clarity, the resulting images doing nothing to help my blush recede. “We…we’re…”

The King watched me flounder for a moment, then spoke quietly. “I will not say whether you should or should not be with him, Hethlin. I certainly have no right to chastise anyone about involving themselves with the Firstborn. But I am urging you to be careful. You know what would happen to him if he pledged himself to you.”

“I made him swear that he would not fall in love with me before we…started,” I said, wincing inwardly at how lame the statement sounded.

“I do not believe that you can command his heart in such a manner,” Aragorn said, “but even if you could, there is danger to yourself as well.” He took a puff of his pipe. “You would not be the first woman of the Dunedain, or man for that matter, to become overmuch fascinated with the Elder Kindred. There have been women of our folk bewitched by the beauty of Elrohir and Elladan when they came home with the Rangers between forays, and men who, upon visiting Rivendell, have found Arwen or other ladies of Elrond’s house more alluring than their mortal counterparts. One of the first things I learned when I became Chieftain was that I should be careful whom I sent to Rivendell on behalf of my people.”

“The Queen says she saw my father there, and played chess with him. Was he one of the ones you sent there?”

Aragorn smiled. “Oh yes, Halaran was safe enough around them. Both of my Hals always were.” The smile became sad for a moment, as he remembered his friend who had followed him to Gondor, but would not ever return to the North. Then he shook himself.

“There were others, however, that it were wiser to keep away, not that they would have harmed an Elf or forced themselves upon one. Our people have too much honor for that. But they might have wasted their lives pining for something they could never possess. Elrohir and his brother have been known to go forth on errantry for a decade or more at a time. It is of little moment for them to do so, but it would be otherwise to a mortal woman waiting for one of them to return.”

“He said almost the same thing to me himself, sir. About the ten years, I mean. Don’t worry, we will be careful.”

The King nodded. “I am glad to hear it. If it is truly what the two of you wish, I certainly won’t stand in your way. But you might consider that if the two of you did wed, Elladan might very well also choose to stay. Unfair as it is for me to say this, I would ask you to consider if Lord Elrond deserves to lose all of his children.”

“I will bear it in mind, my lord,” was all I could think of to say in reply, but that seemed to satisfy him.

“Very well then, I will say no more upon the matter.” We both looked up to find ourselves almost at the city gate, which was closed with the coming of nightfall. Aragorn turned left down a side road after a moment’s thought. “If things have not changed, this should take us all the way around the bottom of the hill and back to here, which should give us plenty of time to finish our talk.” He had stopped smoking during our conversation, and when he looked at the pipe again, he found that it had gone out. Cradling it in his big hand, he did not refill or re-light it, and continued walking after only the smallest of sighs.

“Now, on to more cheerful matters. Since you watched the duel this evening, you have seen my greatest argument for your going to Dol Amroth in action.”

“The Armsmaster, sire?”

The King nodded. “Andrahar is not a young man. Though he is of Numenorean blood himself, on both sides, it is said, I do not know if he will be granted the length of life some of our folk achieve. If you were to go North, and return some years hence, you might find him retired and the opportunity to learn from him lost. Such teachers are few and far between. Glorfindel is such a one, but Glorfindel is leaving. There is no one else I know of among my people who is his equal.”

“Not even you?” I asked in surprise.

“No, certainly not me!”

“But everyone says that you are the best sword in Gondor!”

“Even if that were true, and I question it, it would say nothing about me as a teacher. I do not consider myself a very good teacher of swordsmanship.”

“I have enjoyed sparring with you, sir.”

“You are kind, Hethlin. And though that is undoubtedly educational in its way-every new fighter you face is-it is not the same as instruction from someone who is truly a swordmaster.” Aragorn tapped the spent tobacco out from his pipe, then tucked it away into the front of his tunic, and lengthened his stride slightly. “You will have heard the old saying about those being able to do, doing, and those not able to do so, teaching?” I nodded. “Well, Andrahar is that rarest of beings, one who can do and teach the doing as well.”

“He does not wish to teach me, my lord. He has said as much.”

“But if you are sworn to Imrahil, then he will be obligated to do it, and he will do it, to the best of his ability, whether he wishes to or not. I have known many swordmasters in many lands, Hethlin. There are few his equal for being able to teach people how to reach their fullest potential as warriors. Look at Liahan and Esteven and Elphir and even Imrahil! All excellent fighters, each with a style of fighting unique to themselves. He has honed them all, helped them find their own best way of battle, instead of trying to force them into a style he prefers, as some teachers do. And oftentimes even the greatest of swordmasters hold something back when they teach, so that their pupils will never surpass them or eclipse their fame. But Andrahar is not such a one, he is absolutely honest. Take Liahan, for example. I think he may actually become a better swordsman than his master in a few years. After the Morannon, I mentioned that possibility to Andrahar, but instead of being dismayed or offended at the prospect, he seemed most pleased.”

“You speak very highly of him, sir. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Valar, no!” His expression was difficult to discern in the darkness, but the King’s voice was warmly amused. “He doesn’t care for me in the least! There was a time in the distant past when we might have made a friendship founded upon shared dangers, but that time is long since done. And there are things between us that prevent it now, though I will not speak of them.” When he said that, the amusement left his voice. There was a moment’s sober silence before he continued, and he looked about to make sure we were alone before he did so.

“In fact, before my coronation Andrahar informed me that he owed fealty to only one prince in Gondor and that I was not that prince. He would not bend knee to me were I to ask, therefore it would be wisest if I did not ask. For if I did so publicly, he would refuse, and then I would have no other choice but to execute or exile him, and that would make Imrahil and his family wroth with me. ”

Agog at the cheek of the captain, I asked, “What did you do?”

Aragorn shrugged. “Nothing. There was nothing to be done. He had also informed me that so long as Imrahil acknowledged my kingship, there would be no trouble from him, for he owed Imrahil his obedience. ‘Tis best to leave it there, I think. I am not a man so uncertain of his own worth that I require submission from all about me to prop up my opinion of myself.”

Thinking upon what little I had learned thus far of fealty and court matters, I asked, “But if he doesn’t swear to you, won’t people wonder why? He is from Harad-you would think that he would want to prove that he is on our side.”

“Ordinarily, you would be right. But there is a legion of folk who can attest to his prowess in many battles upon our behalf, and the Prince has held his hand over him in protection for decades. Also, he is not landed, so it is not so great an issue. I had been wondering about that, so I asked Imrahil why it was that he had never rewarded such faithful service, when he had granted land to many of his other knights. And Imrahil told me that Andrahar would never accept land from either himself or Prince Adrahil, though the offer had been made many times, partly because he had neither a family to bequeath it to nor the time to care for it and partly because he would have then had to swear fealty to Lord Denethor. I gather that I am not much of an improvement over the late Steward as far as Andrahar is concerned.”

“Could not the Prince command him to swear to you?”

“Possibly. But I do not think Imrahil would. I think he believes, and rightly so, that such a decision is Andrahar’s alone to make. The Prince can command his Armsmaster in every other thing, including ordering him to lay down his life, but he will not compel him in a personal matter that touches upon his honor. And speaking of honor, this could cause serious problems for the good Captain were it to become known, so I am going to ask you to keep it to yourself.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“I have found you to be quite trustworthy about keeping confidences, so your word will suffice. The only reason I mentioned this to you at all was to give you some idea of the man’s character. Few there are who would risk giving offense to a king because of a matter of principle.”

“Yes, my lord.”

We walked silently for a little while after that, enjoying the night and the stars. Though it was a summer evening, the air was pleasantly cool and the sky a clear, deep black. The stars seemed to burn against its backdrop. We passed a pair of tall, elegant shadows, and did not have to see their ears to know that there were Elves abroad in Edoras this evening. They were not tall enough to be the Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood, but they were male and female, their heads close together as they walked.

“There will be many more soon, I expect,” Aragorn said quietly. “This is just such a night as they love.” There was the brief, white flash of a grin. “They will get little sleep this evening. I should hasten to my lady-she will be restless.” And he lengthened his stride a bit more.

Is Elrohir fretting over my absence? I wondered, though I could hardly speak of such things to the King. Instead, as we finally came all the way back around the hill and started the long climb back up towards Meduseld, I asked, “You wish me to go to Dol Amroth, don’t you?”

The King nodded. “I do not deny it, though as I said, I realize it would be a sacrifice on your part and an unreasonable request on mine. I will respect your choice, whatever it is. But tonight was not about cozening you, cousin . I simply wondered if there were things you had not considered about your situation. You must decide for yourself what you would do with your life. If you wish to become a Ranger in the North, then Litharel or any of our folk could teach you the ways of our kin and the lore of the north-lands. But if you decide that you wish to become a master of the sword in truth, if you wish to perfect your skills to a level where you are truly a formidable opponent and not just a woman who is as good a fighter as some men, then at this time and in this place, Captain Andrahar is the person who could teach you that. And it is an opportunity that I do not think will come for you again.”

There was little more I could say to him in response to that, so I was silent until we came upon the guesthouse, whereupon I thanked him for his advice, wished him a good evening and watched him saunter off to find his lady, whistling cheerfully.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

I returned to my room intending to go to bed, only to find that Lothiriel was nowhere to be found and that there was an ebon-haired Elven impediment perched upon it.

What are you doing here? The Princess will be wanting to go to bed at any time!”

“The last time I looked, the Princess was still in Meduseld, talking most intently to King Éomer,” Elrohir said with an evil smile. “I think she will be gone for some time yet! But I had almost given up on you, and was about to set out upon a search.”

“The King wanted to talk to me, so we went for a walk.”

“And what weighty matters did Estel wish to speak to you about, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“Whether I should go to Dol Amroth or the North, and whether I should take up with you or Prince Imrahil.”

An eyebrow arched upward. “And how did Estel advise you?”

“That I should go to Dol Amroth because Captain Andrahar was such a good teacher, and that I should be very careful around you lest we end by wedding and you becoming a mortal.”

Was that a flash of annoyance I was feeling through the link, or something else? It was hard to tell, for immediately there came the odd, stifling sensation that occurred when Elrohir was blocking me. His voice turned silky.

“There’s a case of the sooty pot telling the kettle to stay nice and shiny.” Elrohir, it seemed, was still working through his anger with his foster-brother. I leapt to the King’s defense.

“Well, he did say it was unfair of him to tell me I should not take up with you. He was worried about your father, I think.”

“It’s a bit late for that!” Elrohir snorted. I noticed then that he had his bow with him, and saddlebags and a bedroll.

“Are you going somewhere?”

“I thought that we might go somewhere. It is a beautiful night.”

Grinning, I said, “Aragorn also said that the Elves would not be able to resist being abroad tonight.”

Elrohir pursed his lips. “I shall get very tired of hearing what Estel said presently.”

“You were the one who asked.”

He sighed. “True enough.” His mood shifted suddenly, to one of beguilement. “Will you not come with me, Snowsteel?” Melting Elven puppy-eyes were turned upon me. I tried to ignore them.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Just out! I want to make a memory.”

“A memory?”

“Before we have to part. If we part.” I stared at him for a long moment, trying to discern from either his expression or the link what he was feeling, and was unsuccessful. “Bring your bow and a blanket. I have everything else we will need.”

Giving up on trying to read him, I sighed, nodded and did as he asked. No sooner had I done so than he took my elbow and headed for the door.

“’Tis a fine night tonight. You will not regret this.”

I wondered if that was really true.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

So it was that I found myself walking down the hill from the Golden Hall for the second time that evening. This time, however, we did not stay within Edoras. Elrohir took me to the gates themselves, and after he exchanged a spate of surprisingly fluid Rohirric with the guards, the gate was opened enough to let us out. We found ourselves looking down across the plains. A light breeze was blowing, and the grass looked almost like waves on water as it tossed, faintly lit with silver.

“Now what?” I asked. “Do we walk from here?”

“Oh no,” Elrohir replied, and whistled a single, melodious phrase. He repeated it a couple of moments later, and from far off, I heard a horse whinny. Then came the distant noise of thundering hooves. We waited, and eventually I could see below two grey shapes, one darker than the other, thundering up the hill towards us, between the mounds of the kings. Finally, Nimfaun and Alagos stood before us, snorting, bouncing, their tails flagging. Elven horses appreciated the starlight too, it seemed.

Nimfaun softly nuzzled me, and I was stricken with guilt. “I’ve nothing for him!” I told Elrohir, who smiled and tossed me an early apple from the saddlebags, then fed another to Alagos.

“These aren’t the ones with the bad spots they keep in the horse bowl, either,” he informed the two stallions in Elvish. “I got you the people apples.” Heads tossed in approval as the apples were crunched with relish. I expected we would go over to the stable next and find the horses’ saddles, but instead Elrohir seized Alagos’ mane and vaulted aboard bareback. He looked down at me.

“Can you do the same, Snowsteel? You said you used to ride bareback when you were a girl.”

I nodded, threw the rolled blanket across Nimfaun’s withers and if I were not as graceful as Elrohir, nonetheless vaulted successfully onto his back. Elrohir gave me a moment to settle myself, then set out at a canter down the hill.

Soon we found ourselves out on the plain itself. Elrohir called to Alagos, who stretched out into a gallop. Nimfaun followed suit. After a few anxious moments, for it felt extremely odd to be riding without a bridle, I remembered the way of it and began to enjoy myself. The Elven horses ran as smoothly as ever, the cool night air washed over me and the starlight was intoxicating. I whooped, Nimfaun pinned his ears back and tried to pass his companion. Alagos answered the challenge, till it seemed we were absolutely flying.

After a time, Elrohir slowed Alagos and turned to the right. Soon we found ourselves cantering along one of the small streamlets that wended their way through the plains. Elrohir slowed to a trot, then halted at a spot he liked, and slid off. Though there was haying going on in other parts of Rohan, the grass here was tall and uncut, and in places as high as my waist. It looked as if horses had not been pastured here recently.

“Come, Snowsteel,” he coaxed as he slid off Alagos, spread his blanket upon the sweet-smelling grass, and set his bow to the side of it, close to hand. Dismounting Nimfaun, I pulled my blanket down and set it and my bow on the other side of the makeshift bed. Elrohir settled back upon the blanket and lifted an arm to indicate that I should join him, which I did. He pulled my head onto his shoulder and we both stared heavenward for some time, just silently appreciating the diamond-strewn blackness above us. The night was quiet save for the sough of the breeze through the grasses, the muted chuckle of the water and the occasional night-bird’s song.

“Elbereth’s handiwork is particularly beautiful tonight,” came Elrohir’s dulcet murmur at last; then, unsurprisingly, I felt a delicate nibble on my earlobe. Turning towards him, I pressed my brow against his and slid my hand up into his silken hair.

“You are beautiful too.”

He all but purred as I stroked my fingers through the midnight strands. “Do you remember the night before Estel’s coronation? When I gave you the bow?”

“Yes. And you kissed me for the first time. It was the first time someone I liked had kissed me and I actually didn’t mind. It made me hopeful that I might actually find someone who would love me and that I would be able to love them back.”

“I was not entirely…unmoved during that exchange, though I told you that I was.”

“Really? You told me at the farm that you’d considered sleeping with me before. Was that one of the times?”

“Yes.”

He was breathing upon my neck now, and I shivered. “That makes me wonder what else you haven’t told me.”

His lips smiled against my skin. “Nothing that I am willing to reveal at present.” His hand lightly down the outside of my arm. “May we have hearts-ease tonight?”

I had been expecting the request, but the situation seemed a bit irregular to me.

Here? In the open?”

“We have our weapons to hand, and the stallions will stand guard. There is no one about to see, Snowsteel. And I would dearly love to have you in the starlight. It is how my people first did such things, and the way they like to best of all.”

He seemed to be faintly glowing in the darkness, and the stars seemed to have dropped into the silver wells that were his eyes. “Then have me,” I said, a bit breathlessly, “and be welcome.”

He lost no time in responding to the invitation, though to my shocked amusement he started chanting a paean to Elbereth as he removed my clothing. He would quote a line, then open a garment, quote another line, then pull it off. Needless to say, I did my best to keep up in divesting him of his garments.

“You are a wicked, wicked Elf!” I told him.

He grinned wickedly, as charged. “And you have no sense of occasion.”

By the time he reached We still remember we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees/ your starlight on the western seas, we were both totally unclothed and he rolled me till I was sitting atop him. The moonlight and starlight shining through the grass-stems striped both him and me in shadow and obscured my scars.

“There!” Elrohir said with satisfaction. “That is what I wanted to see. You against a starlit sky. Perfect!”

I did manage to spare a moment to hope that the King and his lady were enjoying the evening as well.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

I awoke just before dawn, in a relaxed and gradual return to awareness rather than the startlement that sometimes still occurred. Elrohir was curled warm against my back, and I smiled for a moment in remembrance of the evening just past. Then, desiring to clean up a bit, I slid from between the blankets and slipped into the stream. A quiet curse slipped from my lips when I encountered the water’s chill, and I heard a chuckle.

“Why are you always so surprised, Snowsteel? ‘Tis not as if you did not grow up in this part of the world! You should try some of Imladris’ streams-these are almost boiling by comparison!”

“You are not making a convincing argument for my going North!” I declared through teeth clenched to keep them from chattering.

“Then I shall be quiet.” He considerately tossed me a jar of the elven soap and an elven towel from his saddlebags, then took up another towel and joined me in the water. We swiftly cleansed each other, indulging in a minimum of playful splashing, then got out of the water and dried and dressed ourselves. There was a silver mist lying over the grasslands and I wished that the sun would hurry up and rise. Though we had dried ourselves, our clothes had gotten clammy in the damp night and I still felt chilled even after I was dressed.

“We should get moving-that will warm you up,” Elrohir said, seeing that I was uncomfortable. He passed me a piece of bread and offered a flask that turned out to contain some more of that wonderful Elvish liquor. I took a bite and a drink, and began to feel warmer and more alert almost immediately.

“That is such wonderful stuff!” I exclaimed, and he took the flask back with a smile.

“Indeed it is! And you’ve had more than most mortals ever taste! I had best be careful, lest you start to crave it. It is not easily come by, even for our folk!”

Nimfaun and Alagos came strolling over then, seeking treats, and I fed Elladan’s stallion a bit of the bread and a bite from the apple Elrohir gave me next.

“Shall we be off?” he suggested, and I nodded and gathered up my things. A bit more stiffly than the night before, I swung up onto Nimfaun and he mounted Alagos. Rosy light was growing in the East as we started back to Edoras. We made our way without incident or meeting anyone, even one of the drovers. The sun was peeking over the horizon and birds beginning their morning songs as we reached the gates of the city.

There before the gates, we found a crowd of hostlers, horses and lords. To my dismay, one of them was the Prince with his shadow Captain Andrahar, and a couple of other Swan Knights. King Éomer and a couple of his lords were there also, as well as a man I remembered being told was the King of Rohan’s stud master. Princess Lothiriel was the only woman in the party. Their curious eyes were fastened upon us as we approached, and though I had nothing to be ashamed of, I nonetheless found myself blushing.

“Have you been hunting, Lady Hethlin?” Éomer called out cheerfully. “Or perhaps it was you, Lord Elrohir, who was doing the hunting!” There were chuckles from the Rohirrim, but though a couple of the Swan Knights were smiling, neither the Prince nor his Armsmaster were. Lothiriel had an intrigued expression on her face, and was trying to refrain from staring.

“We were not hunting, my lord king, but merely enjoying the beauty of your land,” Elrohir said smoothly, seeing my discomfiture. “What do you abroad so early?”

“Business,” said the King. “I promised the Prince that we might discuss the purchase of some breeding stock, and we are going out to look at the herds this morning.” He turned then to offer Lothiriel a courteous leg up onto her grey mare. Prince Imrahil’s saddle was upon a lovely bay mare rather than Caerith. I wondered if it was because there was a loose stallion where they were going. Berating myself silently, I sought my courage and finding a reasonable facsimile, greeted my liege lord at last.

“Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Hethlin.” That bland, unreadable face of his was back, though his voice was civil enough. His eyes were disturbingly flat. “You might see if the King or Queen require your services while I am gone today.”

“I will do that, sir.” He nodded and swung up onto his horse, and Captain Andrahar and the other Swan Knights followed suit. The Rohirrim mounted, and the party started off down the hill.

Elrohir watched them go with a curiously intent expression on his face. Suddenly, the Prince wheeled his mare and cantered back towards us.

“Go on! I’ll follow in a moment! You too, Andra!” he called to his companions over his shoulder. Right up to Elrohir he rode, pulling the mare up at the very last moment, so that Alagos had to give back a step. A miscalculation I thought it at first, of a horseman on an unfamiliar mount, then saw his stern countenance and knew it to be intentional.

“My lord Elrohir.” Imrahil’s voice was chill and clipped, and he was speaking in Elvish.

“Prince Imrahil?” Elrohir looked puzzled.

“I am a very patient man. Nonetheless there are limits to even my patience, and you have exceeded them at last. When I was a young man, I spent some time in Edhellond, and though my gift is not that of mind-speech, I can tell when someone is testing my shields. The next time I feel you trying to poke about in my head to satisfy your curiosity, I will inform your father and your grandparents of how you are dishonoring your house.”

I had never seen Elrohir taken totally aback before, but I saw it now. He actually paled. “You are not a mortal with natural shields? You are a mortal who has been taught?”

“Indeed.” Imrahil inclined his head fractionally. “Lord Gildor’s folk taught me when I was but a young man. And I learned more than enough in Edhellond to know just how rude you are being, and have been, for some time.” I remembered telling the Prince that Elrohir had been trying to read him, and winced.

“You should have declared yourself before now, my lord.”

“Should I have?” The Prince’s voice was even colder now. “Why is my privacy as a thinking being not worthy of your respect without an Elven connection? Hold you mortals in such contempt?”

To my very great amazement, Elrohir slid from Alagos’ back and bowed.

“I apologize for the intrusion, my lord prince, and swear to you that it will not happen again. I stand ready to make amends, should you require them.”

Eyes icy as Forochel regarded him. “I do not require them at present. But there will be no further spying, upon me or mine. I cannot say that I am likely to discover it if it takes place, for my skills are not that formidable, but should I do so, I promise that you will rue it.” Elrohir nodded his acknowledgement, and the terrible eyes turned away from him and fastened upon me. I lifted my chin and tried to meet them as best I could, and they softened a bit. “It is my turn to apologize, Hethlin. You should not have had to witness this. I beg your pardon.”

“There is nothing to forgive, my lord,” I managed to murmur.

He gave me another of those imperious inclinations of his head, then turned the mare and cantered off to join the others. Somewhat shaken, I slid slowly off Nimfaun’s back and stroked his neck for a moment. The stallion gave me a gentle shove with his nose, so I scratched his forehead as well. Then, with a pleased sigh, he wandered off back down the hill with Alagos. I looked over at Elrohir.

“So, you only get in trouble for poking about in peoples’ heads if they know you are there?”

He grimaced, still looking a bit uneasy himself. “It’s a little more complicated than that. I really don’t care to go into it now, if you don’t mind.” An odd, wry look came over his face. “I do have to wonder if that was entirely about the Prince’s privacy.”

I had been wondering that as well, but that was a subject I did not care to discuss. So silently, we both walked back into Edoras.

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