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1
"Happy Birthday to you..."

September 12, 3021-

The last arrow thudded into the target. There was a moment’s silence. “Clear?” asked the esquire at one of the butts.

“Clear,” Brand agreed at the other, laid his bow on the stand and walked towards the target to retrieve his arrows.

Hethlin strolled over to look at his grouping, which was for the most part clustered towards the center of the target. “Not bad,” she said, “not bad at all for this distance. You’re improving, Brand. Though this one,” and she indicated one towards the right-hand of the target with a grin, “got away from you. Wind, from the look of things.”

Brand glared at the offending arrow for a moment before carefully grasping it to withdraw it. “Stupid breeze!” he agreed. “I will never figure out how to allow for that!” He looked over at her target, where the bull’s-eye looked like a hedge-hog, the arrows were clustered so thickly, and sighed in despair.

She chuckled. “It just takes time. And a lot more arrows than you’ve shot thus far. Though you’ve made a good start for it being such a late one. And I can’t fault your dedication. I thought you’d sleep in this morning, it being your birthday and all.”

“We are leaving for Minas Tirith in a week. I didn’t figure there would be much chance to shoot while we’re on the road.”

“That’s true enough,” Hethlin agreed. “So I’ll excuse you for the duration of the journey there and back. But in Tirith, and when you return back here, you must try to shoot an hour a day. I’ll be very disappointed if I come back from Dale and find you’ve forgotten everything.”

“I’ll try, Lady Hethlin. Will you shoot with me in Minas Tirith while you are still there?”

“If I am able. You know, Brand, you might ask your uncle to shoot with you. Faramir was said to be the best archer in the city during the war.”

“Do you think he would?”

“Well, he wanted to see you when you came to the City. The two of you will have to find something to do to pass the time, won’t you? As for when you come back here, practice is what you will need more than anything else, but I’ve spoken to Sergeant Torlas in the foot, and he says that you’re welcome to come down and shoot with them. You might have to re-arrange your class schedule to do that though-they shoot at a much more civilized hour than I do.” The sun was up over the horizon, but not by much. Archery was not part of the standard curriculum for Dol Amroth’s esquires, and the former Ranger of Ithilien had to squeeze her shooting time in where she could. Training Brand in archery was a duty the Armsmaster had assigned her a year ago when the boy had first expressed an interest, and his regularly scheduled lessons were in the afternoon, but more often than not he came to shoot with her in the morning as well. Starting so late in life meant that Brand needed all the practice he could get.

“Thank you, Lady Hethlin. I’ll go see the sergeant if I need help.” They gathered their arrows and inspected them, then walked back down range to replace them in their quivers. When Hethlin had slung hers back over her shoulder, she looked over at Brand, noting as she did that his eyes were almost level with hers now.

“Speaking of birthdays, Brand, I have something for you.” She started unbuckling her swordbelt while the boy watched her, intrigued. When it was unfastened, she slid her sheathed knife off of it and handed it to Brand, then re-buckled her belt.

“This belonged to your father. He gave it to me right before he left for Imladris. It is real sea-steel and he told me his father gave it to him for his fourteenth birthday. So it seems fitting that you should have it for yours.”

“This was Father’s?” Brand turned the knife in its sheath over a couple of times, then half-drew the blade and examined it appreciatively.

“Yes.”

He looked up at her. “But if he gave it to you, I shouldn’t take it from you…”

“He gave it to me upon the condition that I look after your Uncle Faramir, and stay close to him in battle. I think I fulfilled that condition. And I think that he would want you to have it now.”

It was one of Boromir’s sunrise smiles breaking over Brand’s face at that moment, if only he had known it. Hethlin, who remembered the Captain-General quite well, smiled too, in pleased recognition. The next moment, a pair of lanky young arms were wrapped around her. She jumped a little, for she was not one to suffer unexpected contact without a qualm, even from such an innocuous source and Brand had never offered such before. But she relaxed quickly enough, for she was truly fond of the boy.

Thank you, Lady Hethlin!”

Hethlin patted Brand’s shoulders. “You’re welcome, Brand. Now you’d best hurry along to breakfast. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think I might have overheard some rumor of presents!”

Brand released her with a bit of a blush, then unbuckled his own belt and placed the sheath upon it. Gathering up his bow and quiver, he beamed one last smile at her, said, “Good day, Lady Hethlin!” and trotted off to breakfast, giving a small, gleeful hop as he did so. She grinned as she watched him go, went off to begin her own very busy day.

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

The royal family of Dol Amroth was gathered in their private dining room this morning, and there was no question about the truthfulness of Hethlin’s rumor-presents were much in evidence upon a side table.

“Happy birthday, Brand!” they cried one and all when the birthday boy made his appearance after having hastily washed his face and hands.

“Good morning, everyone!” he said, looking around the table with a grin.

“You’re up early this morning, Brand,” his great-uncle noted, indicating the place of honor at his right hand. Brand came and seated himself after polite bows to Princess Mariel and Lady Tirathiel. His guardian, who was seated at the foot of the table, gave him an approving nod.

“I was shooting with Lady Hethlin. I wanted to get my lessons in while I could.”

“It is good to see you so dedicated to your training,” said Prince Imrahil with a sidelong smile at him. “Or is it merely Lady Hethlin?” Brand bent his head over his plate, his cheeks flushing slightly. The Prince gestured to one of the maids, who brought him a long, slender, cloth-wrapped package.

“Speaking of your archery lessons and Lady Hethlin-she mentioned a little while ago that you were ready for a heavier bow, and she was kind enough to help me shop for one.” The Prince handed the package to his great-nephew, who stripped the cloth sleeve off to reveal a handsome long bow. It was not ornamented as ornately as Hethlin’s own Elven bow, but Brand could tell it was very fine indeed.

“Oh, thank you, sir!” he exclaimed with obvious delight, and the flood of presents began. Princess Mariel had made him a festival shirt, embroidered with swans in flight on the cuffs and collar, while her husband Elphir gave him an actual real sword sized to suit him and Prince Erchirion the sword belt and scabbard to go with it. Prince Amrothos gave him a clever little spyglass, which folded down upon itself, and Lady Tirathiel rather predictably gave him a primer upon etiquette. Little Alphros gave him a decidedly sticky kiss. Andrahar merely looked at him.

“I have a present for you as well, Brand, but it is not here. We will go see it after breakfast.”

“Lady Hethlin gave me a present this morning too,” Brand announced, carefully drawing the dagger to show the others. “She told me that it used to be Father’s, and that it is sea-steel!”

“I don’t know about it being Boromir’s , but of a certainty it is sea-steel,” Imrahil said, eyeing it appreciatively.

Andrahar reached a hand out, and the dagger was passed down the table to him. He turned it over in his hands, his face impassive. “I remember this blade. It was indeed your father’s, Brand. I asked Hethlin how she came by it when she first came to Dol Amroth, and she said Boromir had given it to her before he left for Imladris. Did she tell you that?”

Brand nodded. “And she told me Father had said that his father had given it to him on his fourteenth birthday, so she thought that I should have it for mine.”

After a final, considering look, Andrahar passed the dagger back to Brand. “I would hope that you thanked Lady Hethlin, Brand. This was truly a princely gift, and she hasn’t the resources to get another such for herself.” Brand assured his guardian that he had indeed thanked her very much.

“I think I will see what I can do about replacing Lady Hethlin’s dagger,” the Prince announced. “And as you already know, there will be a dinner tonight of all your favorite things, Brand, as we do for anyone who has a birthday in the family. So you’d best go down after breakfast and tell the cooks what you’d like to have.” Brand grinned with anticipatory relish. He remembered his first birthday feast from the previous year quite fondly.

“I would spend the day with you if I could, lad,” Imrahil continued, “but unfortunately it is my public audience day, and the docket is very full. Half of Dol Amroth is determined to meet with me before I go! But I will see you this evening.”

“Aren’t you just the fortunate one?” Andrahar commented. “Do you need me to stay today, Imrahil?”

“Oh no, Andra. Do go and spend some time with Brand. I’d like to think one of us got the chance to enjoy this beautiful weather.”

Andrahar nodded before addressing himself to his breakfast. The rest of the family followed suit, chatting cheerfully as they did so. When they had done, Princess Mariel gave Brand a kiss on the cheek before taking Alphros by the hand and going off to her solar, her expanding middle causing her to waddle a bit, and his cousins the princes subjected him to a series of hearty embraces and back-slaps before departing. Which left only the Prince and his guardian, who cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Go on then, off to the kitchens with you,” Andrahar said, “but come back here when you are done.”

Brand went off to confer with the cooks, leaving Andrahar and Imrahil to finish nursing their tea, conversing in low tones. When he came back, his great-uncle gave him a smile.

“Did you have your way with the cooks?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Will we be treated to a birthday feast of great magnificence then?”

“So they say, sir.”

The Prince looked over at his oath-brother. “I’ve about half an hour before I must be in court, Andra. Could you spare Brand for that long?”

Andrahar nodded. “Indeed. I need to see Peloren about the final remount list, and I can do that now as well as later.” He rose, and bowed and left the room, leaving a very curious Brand behind.

“I have another present for you, Brandmir,” Imrahil said after his oath-brother had gone, “but it is the sort of gift that should be given privately.” He pushed a small silver key on a chain across the table towards Brand. It was a very ornate little key and Brand wondered what it opened.

The Prince, seeing his look of bafflement, chuckled. “You don’t know what that is, do you, Brand?”

“No sir.”

“It’s a Fairweather key.”

The statement took a moment to sink in. Brand, who had actually been reaching to pick the key up, snatched his hand back and turned crimson.

“Valar! Sir, I don’t need that!” Then his blush deepened even further as he contemplated how rejection of the gift might offend his great-uncle.

Imrahil, however, seemed unoffended, picking up his cup of tea and draining it to the dregs before cradling it in his hands.

“Do you not yet? I suppose that’s quite possible. But it’s also possible that since I am going to be in Dale a year or more, you might need it before I get back. I was fifteen the first time I used mine, and your father was fifteen as well when he sought out his first woman in Minas Tirith, so I’ve always erred a bit on the conservative side and given my sons their keys at fourteen.”

“When did they use them?” Brand was still very red, but he was also very curious.

“That is something you will have to ask them yourself, though I will say that ‘Chiron informed me I’d gotten around to it none too soon. But I suspect he might have been bragging just a bit.”

Despite his embarrassment, Brand found himself stifling a laugh. Then he sobered. “Really, sir, I don’t know if I could. Because of my mother, you see.”

The Prince nodded, his expression sympathetic. “I had thought that you might have some reservations due to your unique perspective. And indeed, Brand, I do not wish to imply that you have to use the key, ever. There are people whose marriage beds are their first experience of such things, and that is very admirable. But I will tell you what my father told me when I reached your age, and I in turn told my own sons. And that is that, despite how things are done in the rest of Gondor, in Dol Amroth we owe our people service and respect, and that means that we do not predate upon our young women, either those serving in the castle or residing in the principality.” Imrahil reached for the tea-pot and poured himself another cup, grimacing slightly when he sipped and found it cold.

“I am sure that you know that young men of your class are considered to have a certain latitude about indulging their carnal curiosity. ‘Sowing their wild oats’ is a term often used to describe it. Of course, the problem with sowing oats is that they sometimes sprout. And that sprout or not, the girl has her reputation and oft-times her life ruined. So I have allowed my sons and now you the freedom to indulge that curiosity-but only with ladies who are professionals. It limits both the damage done and the possibility of bastards.”

Brand looked down at his plate. The Prince continued, his voice very gentle. “Brand, this is not to say that I am not very glad you are here. I am overjoyed that Andra found you, and I love you very much! But had your mother slept with one of my sons, she would have known that she could apply to me when she found she was with child, and I would have cared for her, even if she was not certain the child was actually sired by my son. You would never have had to suffer at the hands of your step-father the way you did! My house takes responsibility for our actions. You are too young to have known my Uncle Aerandir, but he was my father’s older half-brother by a lady like your mother. And my grandfather saw that he was brought up properly and educated. He became an officer in the Swan Knights and married a very nice lady of good family. Aerandir helped instruct me when I was an esquire, and he was a good and noble man. Our blood is precious to us, whether it is legitimate or not. And the reason we do things this way is so that we will have a better chance of knowing where our kindred are.”

A bit hesitantly, Brand asked, “Did you ever sire a bastard, sir?”

The Prince spooned a little honey into his tea and stirred it pensively. “Not that I am aware of. Which is rather extraordinary, for between the ages of fifteen and thirty, I was a very…active… young man. But that activity was for the most part confined to three very exclusive houses here, in Pelargir and in Minas Tirith. And none of those ladies ever made a claim on me, though they knew that they could. I suppose it is possible I had a child by one of them, and she simply wasn’t sure enough of the parentage to make a claim. Or didn’t want to tell me, for some reason. I do wonder about that sometimes.” He gave his great-nephew a rueful smile. “If you hold to your intention to never use the key, Brand, you will not have to suffer any of those moments of doubt. Which is a very good argument for your point of view.”

Brand absorbed this silently for a moment, aware of his great-uncle’s eyes upon him. Then, curious about something he’d noticed in the Prince’s explanation, he asked, “Why do you call them ladies, sir?”

“The professional women?”

“Yes, sir. The whores, as most call them. Why do you call them ladies?”

Imrahil smiled wryly. “Well for one thing, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to vilify them, having enjoyed their company so many times when I was younger! For another, I don’t disrespect women who have made that their choice of profession, for they often have few other options available to them. Many times a woman sells her body for the sake of her family-did not your own mother do just that? Andrahar tells me your mother said she went into the trade to earn the back taxes to save her family’s farm.”

Brand nodded. “So she told me, when I was a little older. I think she didn’t want me to be ashamed of her. But she needn’t have worried-I never have been.” He lifted his chin.

“Well there you have it. My own late wife would have liked to have another sort of career than the one her sex dictated for her. I personally think she would have been an excellent teacher or diplomat. But because she was a woman, she had to settle for being my helpmeet rather than seeking her fortune on her own. So I tend to be sympathetic towards women and their impossible choices.”

“Lady Hethlin does as she pleases.”

“And Lady Hethlin pays for that privilege every day, never think that she doesn’t! I’m sure you’ve heard some of the talk, and I’ll warn you now, you’ll hear even more when we go to Minas Tirith. There are those who think she slept with every Ranger in Faramir’s troop, and those same people will no doubt say that now she’s sleeping with all the Swan Knights. Even if we know that she won’t get her white belt unless she earns it, there will be some who will never believe she didn’t achieve it save through less than honorable ends. Such things used to upset her. Perhaps they still do, though she seems better at hiding it these days. I told her a couple of years back that she needed to decide if she was going to live her own life to suit herself, or pay heed to what others said about her. I might say the same to my great-nephew, who is a whoreson and a bastard, though I suspect that he has already figured that out.”

“You like me, sir, and your family, and Captain Andrahar. And my uncle. No one else really matters, do they?”

“Indeed they do not! Smart lad!” The Prince clapped his great-nephew on the back just as there came a knock at the door, and a muffled inquiry from without. “Ah, my keepers have caught up with me, it would seem. Keep the key, Brand, and use it or not as you choose, when you choose. Enjoy your birthday! I’ll see you again this evening.” He drained the rest of his cup, wiped his mouth, stood and departed.

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

Having stowed the key in his belt pouch, Brand found his guardian in his office, still poring over some lists with Captain Peloren, who looked up and smiled when he entered.

“Happy birthday, Brandmir,” he said.

“Thank you, Captain Peloren,” Brand replied, then looking to Andrahar, asked, “Should I wait outside, sir?”

“No, lad, ‘tis nothing you cannot hear and we are nearly finished in any event,” came a casual rejoinder. So Brand took himself to a chair in the corner and settled himself to wait silently until Andrahar was done, trying to quash all curious speculation upon the matter of presents, listening idly to the discussion of the merits of this horse versus that one. Eventually, the list was completed to both men’s satisfaction and Peloren departed with a last wink at Brand.

“Well, come on then,” said Andrahar to his ward, and as Brand had halfway hoped and expected, their path lay towards the stable. The Commander of the Swan Knights stopped in front of a stall that contained a handsome dark grey gelding, who promptly stuck his head over the door in a hopeful search for treats.

“Peloren told me you’d outgrown the mare,” Andrahar said, “and having seen your feet dangling down about her knees, I’m inclined to agree. So he helped me pick this fellow out.”

“Oh sir, he’s beautiful!” Brand exclaimed in delight, stroking the gelding’s face softly. “Is he war trained?”

“No. Bred for it, but he didn’t finish quite heavy enough, so they cut him. And you’ve no need for a war-horse yet. But he knows enough that he can take you where you need to be going with your horsemanship at present-there will be plenty of time for a war-horse later. Go get your saddle and we’ll see if it fits him.” Brand ran off to the tack room to retrieve brushes, a bit of grain and his gear, only to find the grooms presenting him with a new saddle and bridle for his new horse. Delighted, he then returned to commence getting acquainted with his new steed.

“Thank you, sir!” he said, indicating the new equipment. His guardian leaned against the stall, watching as he laid his saddle on one of the racks provided for that purpose and started grooming the gelding.

“It had to be done. Your old saddle didn’t fit the gelding. And it was well on the way to not fitting you either.”

Brand frowned, for his guardian‘s explanation had brought a problem to mind. “Speaking of that, sir, what shall I do with my mare now?” he asked Andrahar. “She’s been a good horse for me, I shouldn’t like her to come to any harm. But I really am getting too big for her.”

“Well, you could always sell her. But my suggestion would be that you talk to Peloren and see if he can find a suitable stud for her-there’s always a demand for gentle small saddle horses for ladies and younger folk. Let a page you trust ride her every now and again so that she doesn’t forget her business, but breed her and raise and sell the foals. They could bring you a tidy little bit of extra coin.”

Brand looked thoughtful. “In two or three years, Alphros would be big enough to ride her.”

Andrahar nodded. “You could breed her a couple of times, then give her to him. She’s young enough that he’d get several years service out of her. That would be kind of you, Brand.”

“And maybe Elboron could take her after him, if she’s not too old.”

“If she’s older, then all the better for Elboron-she’ll be calmer.”

Suddenly, an idea occurred to Brand, and he frowned. “My sister Gabby likes horses. I could give her to Gabby. I probably should-even Mother could ride her-except that I don’t know if my step-father would appreciate having a saddle horse to feed.”

“If you wanted to give her to your mother’s family, I am sure the Prince would help to pay for her upkeep. And you don’t have to decide today in any event, lad.”

“Yes, that’s true,” the boy said, smiling with relief. “Thank you, sir.” He gave the gelding the thorough grooming Dol Amroth’s stable masters expected, despite his obvious eagerness to be on his new horse. The commander gave orders that one of the saddle horses be prepared for him, and by the time Brand was ready, a stable-boy was bringing Andrahar his mount.

“Do you want to go to the ring first, or ride out?” he asked the boy, and was unsurprised when the answer came.

“Can we ride out? Down to the beach?”

“It’s your day, lad. Of course we can.”

So they set off down through the City, Brand greeting friends and acquaintances as they passed. Andrahar was not particularly surprised to see how many people knew Brand and smiled as he went past-he remembered the boy’s father affecting folk in much the same way. He himself had little to say other than murmured acknowledgment of Brand’s many observations.

They trotted for a while when they reached the beach; then, when the horses were warmed up, Brand got the gallop Andrahar knew he’d been itching for. To the boy’s delight, his new horse outdistanced the Commander’s mount handily. He pulled up, grinning, after they’d gone down the beach quite a way.

“He’s so fast!”

“Peloren said something about that. But I’d best not hear you’ve been racing him when I come back.” Andrahar started walking his horse again, and Brand followed suit.

“I shan’t, sir. I promise. But I don’t see why I couldn’t just go with you on up to Dale.” The last statement was carefully casual, Brand giving his guardian a sidelong glance.

“You are too young, Brandmir. Only the oldest esquires are going with us.”

“You told me once that some Haradrim boys go into the army when they’re twelve.”

“You are not Haradrim. And in any event, those boys only do that because their families cannot feed them. Your appetite has not beggared Dol Amroth yet, though I will own you are giving it a good try.”

Brand laughed despite his disappointment at the refusal. Andrahar did not as a rule unlimber his rather dry sense of humor unless it was with those whom he loved, and Brand had been at Dol Amroth now long enough to know that.

“Grandy gave me another present while you were talking with Captain Peloren,” he told his guardian. “A key to that brothel you go to, can you believe it?”

“I can well believe it. You are the age his sons were when he gave them theirs. Will you use it, do you think?”

Brand blushed. “No, not right away! And I don’t know if I will at all.”

“If you get that sort of itch, you’d best not scratch it anywhere but the Fairweather,” Andrahar warned him. “The Prince would not be happy with you if you did.”

Brand nodded. “He explained that to me. It’s just that I don’t think I’m ready for it yet. He says Prince Erchirion told him he’d taken overlong to give him his key, but I don’t feel like I am ready for…girls yet.”

“’Chiron was a braggart when he was younger, though he has certainly always enjoyed the ladies. But you needn’t feel any hurry to prove yourself in that way. Best to wait until you truly feel you are ready. There is no harm in waiting, Brand.”

“How old were you when you had your first woman?” It was not a question he would have ever asked Andrahar before, but this birthday, and Imrahil’s gift, seemed to have granted him a sort of semi-adult status he hadn’t previously possessed.

“I was twenty-two.” Was that a touch of frost he heard in Andrahar’s voice? Perhaps he’d overstepped himself after all. But a moment later the Armsmaster added, in a more normal tone, “You’d best talk to Imrahil or ‘Chiron if you want advice about women, lad. My experience of them is somewhat…limited.”

Astounded, he reined in his horse. “But…you go to the Fairweather every week!” Andrahar drew rein as well.

“Not for that! For massages. I’m getting along in years and that Khandian fellow they have there really works the knots out. He makes it possible for me to keep doing my job.” Seeing Brandmir’s consternated look, Andrahar smiled dryly. “Difficult though it may be for you to believe right now, Brand, carnal appetites aren’t always the driving force in a man’s life. Particularly when one gets older.”

“Oh.” Brand couldn’t think of anything he could say in response to that that wouldn’t be insulting, so he urged his new horse forward once more, Andrahar at his side. Having successfully acquired one new bit of information about his close-mouthed guardian’s past, he decided to try his luck once more.

“There is something I have wondered, sir, ever since I came to Dol Amroth. Why did you never marry? You are a handsome man, and you have the Prince’s favor and a good position. His other captains are almost all married. Why didn’t you? Is it because you‘re Haradrim? Couldn‘t you find a lady who fancied you?”

The Armsmaster did not answer for a long moment, staring rather fixedly between his horse’s ears. Brand had just decided that he’d indeed gone too far and had in fact opened his mouth to apologize, when Andrahar answered.

“No, it is not because I am Haradrim. And there have been women who fancied me. But I did not fancy them. The plain truth, Brandmir, is that I am a lover of men.”

The gelding was halted once more, rather abruptly this time. “Don’t yank his mouth like that,” the captain said, “or I’ll take him back.” Brand was not sure what expression he had on his face, other than that it probably looked frozen, but Andrahar, seeing it, frowned. “You undoubtedly have questions, so let’s have them, lad.”

Brand shook himself. “How long have…” He could not think of a polite way to finish the sentence.

“Have I been a lover of men? All my life.”

“Why?”

“I do not know. I was a catamite in my youth and that might have spoiled me for women. Or there might be some other reason I don’t know about. I suppose it’s conceivable I was just made that way. That’s what Imri thinks. He says there are such folk as myself among the Elves.”

“You were a catamite? How old were you when you…”

“Twelve.” Andrahar smiled mirthlessly at the boy’s appalled look. “I was a slave at the time, Brandmir, I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”

Brand, who had learned something of Andrahar’s antecedents from his great-uncle, though not this particular fact, nodded. Then, puzzled, he said, “But you said you were twenty-two when you …oh, was that the first time you’d gone to a woman?”

“That is correct.”

“So, did you sleep with women after that?”

“No. I tried two times in my twenty-second year and found that I am incapable with women. I was hoping that I was not. I am not ashamed of what I am, but it is not an easy life, being a man-lover. Particularly in Gondor.”

“Do many people know about this?”

“Imrahil does, of course, and his family. The senior officers in the Swan Knights. The King and Faramir. Probably others as well. There is no law against it now, so I suppose it doesn’t signify who knows, though I prefer to keep my personal life to myself.”

“Have you had many lovers?” Brand knew the moment he said it he’d gone too far, for Andrahar‘s mouth thinned ominously.

“That is a question I will not answer, for you do not need to know! Suffice it to say that I do not sleep with boys and I do not sleep with anyone in the Swan Knights. The first because that is a crime, the second because Imrahil insisted upon it and also because it is folly to disrupt your chain of command in that way. And that is all that need concern you.”

Brand considered this for a moment, then the blush rose in his cheeks again. Andrahar, seeing this, raised an eyebrow. His voice when he spoke was civil enough despite his irritation of the moment before.

“What else would you know, Brandmir?”

“How do…I mean what exactly do men do with each other? I…sort of have an idea, but…”

The Armsmaster snorted. “I’ll not go into that myself with you, you’d have me blushing of embarrassment too!” Brand stared at him, astounded at the very idea. “Go seek out a book in your great-uncle’s library. The Garden of Love is the title. It is quite an education upon all manner of love-making. With pictures. It will explain the matter far better than I could. And with every possible variation, which is much more than I’ve ever gotten up to.”

“But you like doing it? With men? I mean, is it…enjoyable?” Brand went pinker yet.

“Oh yes. Just as congress with women is supposed to be.”

“Do you…have anyone right now?”

“No, and I do not anticipate taking a lover ever again. As I told you, I am getting too old for it. So you needn’t worry about walking in on anything embarrassing. Do you have any more questions at this time?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, if you do, you may come to me with them later. Though this is something I will not discuss in public, Brand, for obvious reasons.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have I upset you, lad?”

“No!” the boy said hastily, then added more thoughtfully, “Yes, sir. A little. I had not expected it. Though it does make sense, now that I think on it.”

“Does it now?” Andrahar’s voice was dry. “Hindsight is generally clearest.” He looked back over his shoulder towards the city. “We’ve come a long way, we’d best be thinking about going back. What were you wanting to do with the rest of your day?”

Brand looked at his guardian, who was suddenly not the same man he’d been a few minutes ago. Or was he? Brand decided to think more upon the matter later. For the present, it was a beautiful day and…

“I’d like to go fishing, if you don’t mind,” he said. Fishing was something Brand enjoyed very much; but to Andrahar, fish were too simple-minded to make worthy foes. And he was of too energetic a temperament to enjoy the long, contemplative sitting that the search for supper was the virtuous excuse for.

“It is your birthday, to spend as you wish,” the Armsmaster said; then, with more hesitation than he’d shown since Brand’s early days at Dol Amroth added, “I would be glad to join you, but if you have other company in mind…”

“I would be glad of your company, sir, should you care to give it,” the boy said, a little stiffly. Andrahar, seeing his reaction, smiled faintly.

“You have plenty of young friends who enjoy fishing more than I do. And I’ve given you much to think upon. I think I’ll go back and help Imrahil with his audiences. Do you think you’ll actually catch something in time for the cooks to prepare it for this evening?”

Brand seized upon this change of subject most eagerly, and as they turned about and started back towards the city, gave Andrahar much more information than he wanted to know about fishing holes and currents, bait and the best time of day to catch certain fish. The Armsmaster suffered this flood of information about a topic he did not care for gladly, since it was preferable to uncomfortable silence. The unsettled glances Brand was giving him did not escape his notice and his own mood was grim, though he did his best to disguise that. He loved Boromir’s son as his own child, and had feared this inevitable moment of revelation almost since the day he’d taken Brand from Pelargir. It was something of a relief to have it in the open at last, but along with that relief went a chilling fear.

Have I lost you then, lad?

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