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A Brotherly Gift
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Part 3

It’s an historical fact that – despite the actually existing bath-houses in medieval towns – the eastern realms had a much more sophisticated bathing culture in the Middle Ages. My own hometown, Budapest, was unique in this area, as the Turkish invaders had built a great number of bath-houses there during their 150-year-long rule. Some of them are still working.

As always, Lord Orchald(or) is “played” by Sean Connery. Imagine him as he appeared in the first Highlander movie. His son Herumor is "played" by Stuart Townsend.


~~~

PART THREE

They spent a few highly enjoyable hours in the baths that could have put the ones in any Haradric city to shame. The bather, an expatriate from Khambaluk by the name of Sinsar, had very skilled fingers and a great gift in setting dislocated limbs and soothing sores; apparently, those were skills taught in his family from generation to generation.

Andrahar was more than content with their visit in the baths. The small-boned, dark-skinned bather was a lot stronger than he looked, and he had managed to loosen some old, hardened knots in the Armsmaster’s back that had been bothering Andrahar for quite some time. There were some skilled people in Dol Amroth’s pleasure houses who could give a decent back rub, but none of them nearly as good as Halabor’s only bather.

Having tested the young man’s skills as well, the Prince agreed with his sworn brother that no-one was as good at working out kinks from one’s back as Southern bathers, whether they lived at home or in foreign countries.

“It seems that the old mercer had become quite fond of the Haradric lifestyle, back in Pelargir, “ said Imrahil, “or else he would not have brought so many Southrons with him when he moved to Halabor.”

“The town surely benefits from their presence,” replied Andrahar, moving his no longer sore shoulders under his surcoat, “and so does its lord. Few places in Gondor have the chance to learn what true comfort and cleanliness are.”

Imrahil snorted in ill-veiled amusement. This was an old jest between the two of them. Andrahar, had grown up in Haradric cities, where the regular visiting of the common baths was the very way of life, even for the simple folk – one had to get rid of the dust of the streets and the sand of the nearby deserts, carried into the cities by the strong winds. He often made belittling remarks about the lack of cleanliness in Gondor.

That was not entirely true, of course. At the very least the Dúnadan nobles had kept a certain level of fastidiousness, due to their forefathers’ connections to the Elven folk. Imrahil himself had spent two years of his… tumultuous youth in the Elf-haven of Edhellond, in the house of Gildor Inglorion, an Elf-lord of royal birth, and as a result, he had always been very conscious about the cleanliness of his person and his surroundings. Generally speaking, however, Andrahar had not been so wrong either. The young esquires, sent to Dol Amroth to become Swan Knights, had sometimes a hard time living up to the Prince’s demands in this particular area.

Fortunately, both Lord Orchaldor and his son had gone through the same training in Dol Amroth. The Prince had nothing to fear in their house. Not that Imrahil would have made an issue out of the possible lack of comfort and cleanliness while staying as a guest in another nobleman’s house. Still, it was comforting to know that he would find his lodging fit for his demands.

After their most satisfying visit in the baths, they took the way along the river bank back to the Castle. They walked along the herb gardens of the Infirmary, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the flowers and healing herbs that were growing there, well protected by the garden walls. The many-coloured tiled roof of the Infirmary glittered in the evening sun like tiny jewels. ‘Twas unusual for a town as small and unimportant as Halabor was now to have such a large and well-built house for the sick and the ailing, but the town had been a much more frequented place once, and this was one of the sure signs of its one-time importance.

Turning by the Riverside Inn, the Castle was now in full sight, offering them another clear picture of a stronghold that had once seen better days. At the same time, they were also treated to the impressive sight of Lord Orchaldor’s returning hunting party.

Impressive it was, indeed, for the lord of such a small town, with an ancient and respectable bloodline but a rather small honour(1). Yet though the extensive lands of his family in South Ithilien had fallen in the hands of the enemy hundreds of years ago, Lord Orchaldor still controlled the only crossing of the Great River this side of Minas Tirith, and the annual fairs, albeit not so rich and pompous as at the times of his forefathers, still secured him a handsome wealth – and it showed.

The hunting party, nearing the Castle on the opposite side from Imrahil and Andrahar, could have made the lord of any Gondorian province proud. ‘Twas led by Lord Orchaldor’s huntsman, a tall and willowy knight of about fifty, wearing the usual, rough green and brown garb of the woodland folk. Following him were the dog-keepers, father and two sons by their looks, with the lashed beasts: a pair of lymers (bloodhounds, used to finish the stag at bay), a smaller, more agile hound that was called a brachet in these lands, and a pair of leviers, large, swift greyhounds, each one capable of killing a deer.

The lord himself rode in the middle of the party, wearing the same practical clothing as his men, though his black tunic was more finely made. He had his long, iron-grey hair pulled into a tight ponytail and wore a clean, short-cropped beard, in the fashion of the Old Folk of Anórien. Yet his sharp, noble features and keen grey eyes left no doubt about his true Dúnadan origins. An ivory hunting horn, made of the tusk of a mûmak and equipped with a silver tip, hung from his hip.

He was accompanied by his falconers, who rode on either side of him, one carrying a long-winged gerfalcon on his fist, the other one a short-winged goshawk. Each magnificent bird had an embroidered hood covering their eyes, with an opening for the beak. They sat on the arms of their keepers motionlessly, digging their razor-sharp claw into the thick leather of the falconers’ gloves. The lord himself was carrying his favourite, the most beautiful peregrine Imrahil had ever seen. That was small wonder, though. Lord Orchaldor was related through his late wife to Lord Forlong of Lossarnach, who was known to have the largest and best falconry in the entire Gondor.

The rest of the party was made up of horn blowers, beaters, a small troop of mounted wolf hunters – as the hungry beasts were bothering the lord’s woods even during summer in these days – and a few archers, one of whom carried the lord’s own bow. Again, a most impressive party, and apparently a skilled one, for the wood-wards and a few helpers were carrying two fat deer after the hunters, and some of the beaters had felled birds, bound together by the legs, thrown over their shoulder.

One of the falconers was the first to spot the Prince and his companions, and the young man hurried to direct his lord’s attention to them. Lord Orchaldor called back his huntsman to take over the falcon from him, then he got off his horse at once, yet without any undue eagerness. He was more than willing to honour his allegiance and give his liege lord all due respect, but not at the cost of his own dignity. He was Imrahil’s senior by some twenty years, after all; he could have been the Prince’s father.

“Welcome to Halabor, my lord Prince,” he said in a deep, slightly rough voice that, just like his sunburned face, revealed that he spent much time outdoors. “We are honoured by your presence.” He clasped forearms with Imrahil, then also with Andrahar, and nodded towards the Armsmaster courteously. “Master Andrahar, I am glad that I can speak my thanks to you for training my son in the art of swordplay. He would never have become so good with the blade without your tireless tutoring.”

Andrahar bowed, albeit a bit stiffly. Truth be told, he was unused to such courtesy from Gondorian noblemen. While no-one could deny the good work he had put into the training of Gondor’s best knights, their families usually considered him naught more than a useful tool, seldom as a person. Even more rarely as a person who had earned respect for his work. The old lord of Halabor was apparently cut from a different sort of wood.

“But do come back to the Castle with me,” continued Lord Orchaldor. “I hope my son had the best chambers prepared for you, and Mistress Gilmith has seen to your needs?”

‘Twas not a question, not truly. The old nobleman very obviously knew that his staff – and his son – would never fail him. He was just speaking out of courtesy for his guests… to show them how much honoured and respected they were in his house.

Imrahil answered that they had been taken care of properly, and they all returned to the Castle, where the hounds were brought to their kennels and the hawks and falcons to the mews: a decorative stone tower, built in the courtyard, with the very purpose of housing the lord’s hunting birds. In the windows, Andrahar could glimpse at least two other of these magnificent creatures – the lord of Halabor apparently was very fond of his hunting.

While the members of the hunting party spread all over the courtyard to go after their respective duties, grooms came to lead away the horses, and Mistress Gilmith appeared to greet her returning lord and to announce that the evening meal would be served at the fifteenth hour, as always. That gave the lord just enough time to wash and change, and the household to finish preparations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In Halabor, the lord of the Castle still ate his meals in the Great Hall, together with his entire household. This was a time-honoured custom that had been going out of fashion in many noble households in Gondor, as older people often complained. Not in Dol Amroth, though, nor, according to rumours, in Lossarnach, where Lord Forlong led his court more after the fashion of a clan household of the Old Folk than according to Dúnadan customs, and apparently not in Halabor, either, where Lord Orchaldor had made great allowances to local tradition during the long years of his rule.

By the time Imrahil and Andrahar were led down to the hall by the boy Lorindol, the servants had already set up the trestle tables and spread the cloths, setting steel knives, silver spoons, dishes for salt, silver cups and the mazers – shallow, silver rimmed bowls – for the broth. The times when thick slices of day-old bread had served as the only plate for the roast meat were over, but one of those manchets was laid out on each silver trenchet, as it would have been foolish to waste the good grease and sauce seeping out of the meats.

Imrahil and Andrahar were escorted to the high table, where the Prince was set on the Lord’s right – the place of honour – opposite the young Herumor, and with Andrahar on his other side. There were no other guests this evening, so the knights of the Castle filled the other places, first of whom was Borondir, the captain of the House Guard. A short horn blow signalled the time for washing hands, and servants with ewers, basins and towels came and attended to the guests.

After that, a second horn blow announced the actual beginning of the meal. The lord and his guests, as well as the entire household, rose from their seats and turned to the West, looking towards Númenor that had been, and beyond to Elvenhome that was, and to that which was beyond Elvenhome and would ever be, as it had been custom among the Dúnedain ever since their forefathers had returned to Middle-earth. After grace, a third horn blow called the procession of servants to begin bringing the food to the tables.

First came the pantler with the bread and butter, followed by the butler and the cup-bearer who poured wine or ale, whatever the guests wanted. The wine was from the lord’s own vineyard: young and light but reasonably good. It could not be compared with Imrahil’s vintage or the strong red wines he bought from Harad, not to mention the golden Elven wine he got from Edhellond, but for Mannish measures, it was good enough. The ale, on the other hand, was brewed by a local beer-seller and surprisingly strong and good. Though both Imrahil and Andrahar preferred wine, they had to admit that ale, if brewed properly, could have its own attraction.

The boy Lorindol – the squire assigned to the delicate task of serving the highest-ranking guest – had apparently been taught with great care how to serve at meals. He presented the dishes with grace and in the right order, placed them on the correct side, carved the meat without making a mess on the immaculate tablecloth and even found the time between courses to wash his hands repeatedly. Indeed, not even at his own table back home could the Prince be served better.

The meal itself, albeit copious for such a small household, still could not compare itself with the table of the rich nobles in Minas Tirith. It consisted of a civet of meat (seasoned beef with bread crumbs, red grape juice, onions, cheese, honey and various spices), spinach salad in a dressing of olive oil, red wine, vinegar and fresh herbs, onions in a strong vegetable broth, sweetened with white grape juice, and honey cakes in rose petal sauce. The cook was called to the Great Hall to explain the dishes to the guests and name all the rare spices that had been used to prepare them. This was a custom more common in the houses of burghers than in those of the nobles, but the cook obviously took great pride in his work, and thus Lord Orchaldor allowed him to bask in glory for a few moments.

During the meal, a sole minstrel entertained the guests, playing his harp and singing in the dialect of the Old Folk. He was a simple local man by the name of Rhisiart, and while his skills might be lesser than those of the minstrels filling the Prince’s court, he was good enough for the hall of a nobleman. He even knew a few old ballads in a recognizable Sindarin, which was more than any of the scops of the Old Folk could have said about themselves. But mostly, he stuck with simpler songs.

“We live in the fashion of the Old Folk in many things,” admitted Lord Orchaldor, when the meal was over and he moved with his guests to the gallery, to watch the Castle Guard doing some swordplay training in the courtyard. “’Tis a simpler life than most Gondorian nobles would prefer, but it suits us. These are not the times of glamour and grandeur for Gondor. We have to save our strength and our resources for more pressing tasks. Like protecting our lands.”

Andrahar found it interesting that – unlike Imrahil who tended to see the bright side of all things when possible – Lord Orchaldor apparently shared the Steward’s gloomy view about Gondor’s chances against the dark forces of Mordor. There seemed to be little hope left in the heart of the old nobleman, although he would not waver to fight for his small town ‘til his last breath. Granted, he was closer to Denethor’s age; and he had a town to protect that stood wide open to the River. And while Orcs did not like to cross large bodies of water – something no-one had found out the reason for so far – they were able to do so, if they had to. And Halabor had suffered raids from the people of Rhûn, the Dunlendings and the Hill-men as well, many times during its long history.

So yea, Lord Orchaldor had every right to look into the gloomy future with a certain amount of trepidation.

The Armsmaster gave the heir of Halabor a thoughtful glance. Young Herumor had changed a lot since leaving Dol Amroth as a freshly made Swan Knight – more than Andrahar had thought at first glance in this very morning. There was a soberness in the young man’s eyes that revealed him to be more mature than his years. ‘Twas a maturity only battle and the burden of responsibility could give a man. Many a young lordling wasting their lives idly in Minas Tirith could have learned from Orchaldor’s son.

Base-born and sworn to lifelong fealty Andrahar might be, yet he, too, knew the burdens of responsibility. Just as young Herumor bore that burden twofold, first on account of his father, whom he served and protected, and second on account of his subjects, whom he led and protected, so Andrahar had his lord and sworn brother to serve and guard and the knight-apprentices to train and lead. In the end, they were not that different, after all, the last twig of a once proud tree from Westernesse and the exiled bastard son of a Haradric warlord.

As if he had read Andrahar’s thoughts, the Prince touched his forearm briefly.

“It matters not where we came from, Andra,” he said in a low voice, so that no-one else would hear. “What matters is where we go… and in what company. You belong to us now, and you always will. We may not be your people by blood – but you are ours in everything that truly matters. Never forget that.”

Andrahar nodded his thanks – there was no need to speak those words between the two of them – and kept watching the swordplay below wordlessly. It seemed that young Herumor had not forgotten the things he had been taught in Dol Amroth. The household knights were being drilled mercilessly, and they showed impressive skills for such a small garrison.

When the training was finished, Lord Orchaldor asked the Prince if they could discuss the matters of the Realm in private. Andrahar was not happy to be dismissed – he generally hated to let the Prince out of his sight – but even he had to admit how unlikely it was for Imrahil to get hurt in the house of an honourable Swan Knight. Thus he chose to return to his own chamber to have some sleep. That would enable him to watch Imrahil during the night better. As hard and reliable as thrice-forged steel his body might be, he was not gifted with Dúnadan longevity. Keeping in shape took just a little more effort with every passing year.

Entering his chamber – which was a smaller, simpler version of Imrahil’s – his breath caught in surprise. The Joshagan rug, with its bright floral pattern that looked like a meadow in full bloom, was spread over his bed. On the nightstand, there was a silver plate with a generous helping of halvah – the typical Haradric sweetmeat, pressed of sesame seeds and pistachios, as sweet as other Haradric dishes were spicy – and a jug of red Haradric wine. A leaf of vellum was pinned under the jug, with Imrahil’s strong, beautiful handwriting on it.

Your loyalty and faithful service could not be paid for with gold, mithril or rubies, thus I would never insult you by trying to name the proper price for that. All I can – and wish to – give you for this anniversary is a piece of home and a day as perfect as it is possible in a foreign country.

Andrahar stared at the flowery lines and at the princely gift he had been given, and his deep, dark eyes softened for a moment.

“You have succeeded, my lord,” he said softly in his own tongue, “you have succeeded very much.”

~The End~

~~~

1) In medieval terms, honour also means the lands (manors, etc.) a lord owns.


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