Fourth Age 122--I did not want to go to court that evening, for I had made arrangements to meet some friends at a tavern down in the second circle, but Grandfather insisted. He said that he was going on a long journey two days hence, and wanted the whole family at dinner the two nights before he left. I suggested that my father, his two brothers, the Princess Royal and all of their wives and children were sufficient royalty for one room at one time, whereupon Grandfather merely gave me the Royal Eyebrow and told me that I’d better appear. He further stated that if I played truant to his royal command, and he found me in a tavern, he’d have me publicly hauled back up to the Citadel bound hand and foot over the back of the boniest horse he could find.
By this, I determined that the royal temper was perilously close to breaking where I was concerned. So I sent my regrets to my friends, and made my preparations for dinner with ill grace. My intention was to express my displeasure by arriving late enough to make Grandfather worry as to whether or not I was coming, without being so late that he would actually send the Tower Guard after me. There was a certain amount of finesse involved in the timing of such things, and I was usually very good at it. But when I tried to gain entry to the Hall of Feasting by the door that led directly to the royal dais, the guards would not let me in, saying Grandfather wished everyone to enter by the main door this night. Points and game to Grandfather--I would have to traverse the whole length of the Hall while everyone stared at me, very publicly late.
So I was in a foul mood when I reached the front door, and it became fouler still when I found the door-ward arguing with someone about being allowed into the Hall.
“Dinner is already served, and His Majesty may not be interrupted,” the door-ward was saying.
“His Majesty sent me a letter saying he had urgent business to discuss with me, and I dropped what I was doing to hot-foot it all the way down here from Rhovanion, so yes, I intend to interrupt his dinner, and if you’re a wise man, you’ll get out of my way,” a husky voice declared. An older man, judging from the outlandish tail of white hair, clasped at intervals with knotwork clasps hanging down the back, and the cane in the hand, though he was still straight and tall, and a long sword still hung at his side.
The door-ward bleated a protest, and the man made to move past him. I grew impatient with all this, and knowing that the door-ward would not stop me, shoved a bit roughly past the old man and opened the doors, eager to get my humiliation over with so I could eat my supper. I was beginning to feel quite hungry.
I was halfway through them when the cane slipped between my legs and tripped me up quite neatly. I fell forward down the first and second steps and as I did so, my outflung arms struck the doors and threw them back against the wall with a resounding boom. Diners jumped, and the hall echoed with exclamations of dismay. I came to rest head down, sprawled gracelessly over the steps. A pair of black boots, the lower part of a cane, and the sweep of a dark grey cloak hem all moved past me as the old man moved into the feast hall. A silence fell, and the only sound that could be heard was the tap tap of the cane as the vicious oldster made his way towards the royal table.
Incensed, I scrambled to my feet. “You! Old man! Do you know who I am?” I called. The tap tap ceased as the old man halted, then turned to face me.
“An ill-mannered whelp from your actions, sir,” came the husky voice. I looked him up and down and suddenly realized that though she was dressed in men’s clothes, this was a woman, strong-featured and hawk nosed. Eyes as grey as the storms that came over the Ephel Duath regarded me dispassionately, as if I were not worth anything that took so much effort as contempt. She wore a black velvet doublet, high necked, the front of which was embroidered with a silver hawk, between whose outstretched wings was a Dunedain star. Black breeches and boots completed the somber outfit. A star brooch held her dark grey cloak closed at her throat. One of the Grey Company? Vague warnings began to sound in my mind, but common sense had never been my strong point. The sword she wore looked very old, but very well cared for, and it hung, strangely enough, on the white belt with the swanship clasp that denoted a Swan Knight. The mental warnings grew louder.
“I am the heir to the throne of Gondor!” I declared indignantly, despite my better instincts screaming at me to leave matters alone. A white eyebrow arched ironically. She turned towards the royal table, and indicated Grandfather, who was sitting with his head in his hands, shaking it slowly.
“That is the King of Gondor.” She then indicated my father, who was glaring such knives at me that it was a wonder I was not bleeding to death upon the spot. “That is the Heir of Gondor.” She turned back to me with a similar gesture. “And you, sir, are merely a brat.” A nervous titter ran about the room, as she turned her back on me and proceeded towards the royal table once more. I was absolutely furious, and moved swiftly towards her. To this day, I am not sure exactly what I intended to do, but whatever it was did not matter, for the next thing I knew that wretched cane had come out of nowhere, stabbing first into my belly, driving the air out of me, and then hooking my legs out from under me again. This time, I landed on my back, looking up at the old woman, who was ignoring me completely, and looking at grandfather.
“He comes near me a third time, Eldarion, and it’ll be the sword I take to him,” she declared matter-of-factly. Grandfather sighed, and his look promised me pain and torment beyond imagining.
“You might not want to do that, Heth--he is your great-grandson.” She looked back down upon me, unmoved.
“All the more reason I should take care of matters myself then. And between him, and the ride down here, whatever you have got to say to me had better be good.”
The next morning, I was at arms practice, an activity I shunned whenever possible because it involved getting up early and sweating, two of my least favorite things. Father and Grandfather, however, had spent much of the evening in converse about my disgraceful behavior, and had decided to Take Me In Hand. Thus I was routed from my bed before dawn, and informed that I would be down in the lists in half an hour, or royal wrath would fall upon me.
“For,” said Eldarion, King of Gondor, “It is obvious that you have become soft and spoiled, my dear grandson, and if you cannot amend your condition here, I will send you some place for a couple of years that will aid you in doing so--such as the Harad border.” I shuddered at the prospect of much sweating amidst endless sand, with no good beer, and women who were swathed head to toe in black, and sallied forth, if not with enthusiasm, at least the determination to avoid such a fate.
The courtyard was filled with the most martially inclined of Gondor, grunting and swinging and generally carrying on as if we were going to be invaded by Sauron’s forces next week. I went to the group of young men I usually practiced with, and began warming-up exercises. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my uncle, the Steward Barahir, sparring with the son of the Haradrim ambassador. His blue eyes, heritage of his Rohirrim grandmother the Lady of the Shield Arm, were narrowed in concentration, and he was giving much better than he got, which was fine with me. The Haradrim ambassador’s son was a stuck-up dolt.
Grandfather was working with a couple of his Guard captains, not that that was particularly satisfying for him--he very rarely found a sparring partner who could make him break a sweat. Father did not possess his flair for a sword, but he was dangerous enough. He was actually working with a class of squires this morning. I had finished warming up, and had found a partner to spar with, when I spied my nemesis of the previous evening, leaning against the wall and watching the practice with a chilling lack of expression. She was a portrait in black and white--white hair, white shirt, white belt, black boots, black pants, black padded gambeson. I realized in sudden disbelief that she had come dressed to play.
I felt her eyes upon me as my friend and I began our bout, and after a time, much to my dismay, she made her way over to us and watched us spar. It was not a particularly long bout, Rehan was better than I and soon touched me on the ribs, but I didn’t care. The idea was to give the appearance of obeying the royal command without exerting myself any more than was absolutely necessary.
At the conclusion of the bout, she stepped over to me. “What kind of training have you had, boy?” the husky voice asked. “Your stance is non-existent and you’re giving every one of your blows away.” I gave her a frigidly polite bow.
“I have an Armsmaster of my own, Madam. You need not be concerned on my behalf.”
“If you were mine, and he’d had the training of you, and done so poorly, I’d have strung him by his thumbs from the first wall. You should be much further along in your training than you are.”
“You needn’t concern yourself, Madam. It is unlikely that I will ever come to the throne anytime soon, and if I do, Gondor has captains aplenty to handle such things as border wars.” The look she gave me then made it apparent she’d finally decided that holding me in contempt was worth her time and energy.
“You’d send men into battle in your name, while you lingered behind out of danger? How could you do so, with the blood that flows in your veins?”
Somewhat stung by her tone, I snapped, “My great-grandfather, Prince Faramir, sent men into battle all the time as Steward while he remained behind in Minas Tirith, and no one thought the worse of him, my lady. Perhaps my cowardice comes from him.”
It wasn’t the cane this time, it was her hand, a large hand for a woman, and sword-calloused. It cracked across my face with stunning force, and a loud report, and everyone in the immediate vicinity stopped and stared at the two of us. I staggered back a couple of steps, and nearly fell on my rump. Straightening up slowly, I fingered the corner of my mouth where my lip had split.
“I demand satisfaction, madam.”
Her eyes were no longer ice, they were blazing grey fire. Rehan had drawn back from me a pace or two, as if afraid proximity would bring her wrath down upon him as well.
“You will not have it, you misbegotten little cur. I don’t duel with children, and I would not stain my steel with your blood. See to it that you never soil Faramir’s name by passing it through your teeth again. For you know nothing about him.” At that, she turned on her heel and stalked off, fighters scattering from her path like frightened chickens.
And despite the fact that she was the one that had just laid violent hands upon a Prince of Gondor, everyone was looking at me as if I were the social pariah. With as much dignity as I could muster, I walked off the list field, and tossed my practice blade into a nearby rack. I didn’t dare leave the field, but leaned against the wall and became a spectator, praying that Father or Grandfather would take me to task for not working further, so I could tell them just what the old harridan had done to me.
Father had been too far away, and too involved with his pupils to notice, but Grandfather looked at me, and raised his eyebrows. He then looked to where the old witch was leaving the field, and called, “Heth! Ranger fight?” She stopped in her tracks, and turned back to face him, looked him in the eye for a moment, then nodded.
“If you like, Dare.” She started for the rack that held the practice swords, but he spoke again.
“Live steel will do, Heth.” A murmur ran around the list field, as he sent his esquire for his sword and long knife. It was the ultimate compliment to someone that you were willing to duel them with unblunted weapons. I smiled with anticipatory satisfaction--Grandfather was about to take my vengeance for me.
The Lady Hethlin looked at him, and something moved behind the wintry eyes. One side of her mouth curled up in a smile.
“As Your Majesty wishes.” Without further ado, she moved towards the King and waited while he armed himself. I was suddenly aware of my uncle moving to stand beside me with a wicked grin on his face.
“This should be good,” he said, chuckling. Then he turned and looked at me, gripping my chin in his fingers, and turning my cheek to look at it.
“What did you say to her this time?”
“I just said that Prince Faramir used to send people to war while he stayed home, and nobody thought he was a coward.” Well, that was almost what I’d said. Barahir just shook his head sadly and released me.
“I know you’re not stupid, Tell. At least I used to think that.....But lately.....Lad, she was one of Faramir’s Rangers. You couldn’t have said anything more offensive if you’d tried, which I have no doubt you were doing. In fact, if I think about it long enough, I might be offended myself.” I just leaned back against the wall and sighed.
“Grandfather will take care of her. You’re right. This will be fun to watch.” Grandfather had received his weapons from his squire and was buckling the sword belt on. People were gathering from everywhere, stopping their own bouts to join the audience. The lady simply stood there waiting. When he drew his blades, she did the same, and waited again, sword and knife hanging loose at her sides, head cocked slightly. Father had left his students, or rather brought them over, and was acting as the referee.
“Are you both ready?” Both parties nodded assent, though Lady Hethlin did not assume a defensive stance of any sort. Grandfather did settle into a classic starting position.
“Then, lay on!” Father stepped back, and battle was joined.
I almost felt sorry for the old hag for a moment, much as I disliked her, for it was obvious that Grandfather was not playing around. Anduril came in brutally hard and fast--and was parried with a screech of steel, as was his dagger. I was impressed, for I never even saw her move. But she was forced to give way, and his initial attack was followed by a flurry of blows that caused her to retreat beneath them, though she did manage to parry everything he threw at her. Back and back he drove her across the courtyard, their blades clanging and sparking. People scampered out of the way when the fight moved in their direction. When they drew nigh to us, I noticed that strangely enough her face was utterly calm, her eyes rapt, almost as if she wasn’t there at all. It was not, I realized, the face of someone desperately on the defensive. My uncle, seeing this as well, grinned toothily.
“Watch this, Tell, it’s about to get good.” No sooner had he said it, when something changed. Those lined lips curved up in a smile that was almost joyous, and the next thing Eldarion, King of Gondor knew, the favor was being returned, and he was being driven back the way he’d come by a singing whirlwind of steel.
I had never before seen fighting like I saw that day, done for the love of the sword-dance itself. They went forward, they went back, they circled and feinted, and the whole time their blades were a blur. Grandfather had a huge grin on his face, and while the Ranger was somewhat more restrained, it could be seen from her expression that she was enjoying herself too. When in battle, she gave no indication of her leg injury, no limp or hesitation. The crowd was utterly silent, almost holding their breaths, fearful perhaps that the least noise on their part might make one or the other slip, and wound or kill. When it ended, it was not as I expected at all. My grandfather’s dagger made a gleaming arc into the air, Anduril was driven aside by the Ranger’s knife, and her sword halted but a hair’s breadth from his throat.
“That’s a kill,” he conceded, panting heavily, and saluting her with Anduril before he sheathed it. The courtiers and soldiers were silent for an astonished minute, then started applauding. They were somewhat more restrained than they would have been had the fight gone the other way, I thought--fearful of royal anger if they should show joy at his defeat, perhaps. But Grandfather did not seem in the least bit angry--to the contrary, he looked quite happy at the outcome, giving his mother-in-law a hearty hug.
“That was marvelous, Heth! We’ll have to do that again sometime.” She nodded, also panting, but not, I noticed, quite so badly as he. But then, Grandfather had been spending a lot of time behind a desk of late, and there were few in the City who could truly give him a workout anyway.
“At least once a year, Dare--you can keep me honest, let me know when it’s time for that chair in the garden.” She leaned on his shoulder a bit. “Not today at least--not for a while yet.”
“I should think not!” She let go of him then, and took a step forward, and her right leg buckled. He barely caught her in time, and pulled her upright against him.
“Are you all right, Mother?” he asked with concern. She nodded. “Leg just locked up on me. I need my stick.” Uncle Barahir spied it where it was leaning against the wall, and brought it to her, then without asking, knelt down and started working the muscles of her thigh. Her hand ruffled his hair gently.
“You always were a sweet boy, Barahir.” He looked up at her and smiled, sweetly as she had named him. After a few moments of the massage, she indicated that he should stop.
“That’s as good as it’s going to get. Thank you, lad.” Uncle did not seem to mind being called lad at his advanced age, though he usually did not suffer liberties to his person lightly. He stood, and she held out her arms, and he hugged her gently. She kissed his cheek, then took her stick from where it had been leaning against her hip, and hobbled over to where the spectators were. Soon she was surrounded by young men asking her advice on swordplay, and before long, an impromptu clinic had been set up, with her limping about from one pair of fighters to the other and offering criticism and suggestions
Grandfather and Uncle looked at one another and exchanged meaningful, pleased smiles. This development apparently suited them, for whatever reason I could not tell. Then the King of Gondor’s eye fell upon me, his face darkened, and I fancied I could feel the sand-laden lash of the desert wind stinging my face already.