The first thing Brand became aware of was a rocking sensation and the sound of creaking. Then the voices happened. Meaningless murmurs at first, till he realized that they were speaking Haradric and frowning, began to bring his muddled mind to bear upon the problem of translation.
“-too old, do you think?” one voice was saying. “I wasn’t sure what to do-the little ones were well in the trap, but he wasn’t going to leave them, and if I’d waited any longer, I was afraid we’d lose them.”
“No, you did well, Nezam,” came another voice. “The only other way would have been to kill him and leave the body, and that would have been a shame with a face like that.”
“So I thought, Captain, but he’s very tall.”
“It is hard to tell, sometimes, with these Northern boys, exactly how old they are. Let’s have him up here.”
Brand felt hands upon him, lifting him, and setting him upon a hard surface. He realized that he was gagged when he gasped in protest at the movement and that his hands were bound before him when someone grasped those hands and pulled them above his head. Someone else wrapped arms around his legs and then a third person removed his gag and pried his mouth open, checking his teeth. When that was done the same hands moved to the buttons of his breeches.
That brought his eyes open in a hurry and instinctively, he bucked against his captors’ grasp. There was a chuckle, and the voice he’d identified as the captain’s said, “I thought that he might be waking up.” A dark face loomed over his, a face that had probably been rather saturnine and angular in youth, but was now starting to pad over with a layer of flesh in middle age.
“Lay quiet, boy, and you won’t be hurt,” he told Brand in Westron, before finishing with the buttons and dragging Brand’s breeches down off his hips. Pinioned as he was, Brand struggled as best he could but ultimately could nothing to stop the captain as he examined Brand’s private areas as dispassionately as he would have checked a horse he was thinking of buying. Horrified, Brand could only gasp in relief when the man pulled the pants back up and refastened them when he was done.
“Yes, he’s well on the way to manhood,” the captain said in Haradric once more; then, stroking an appreciative hand over Brand’s belly, added, “but he’s lovely nonetheless, and he has exquisite skin. He might very well bring more than the other three together. You did well indeed, Nezam.”
“Will he bring more if he’s cut?” Nezam asked. “We could do it now, and he’d be halfway healed by the time we reached Umbar.” The captain, after pulling Brand’s shirt back down over his stomach, caressed his cheek and throat speculatively. Despite himself, Brand shuddered beneath his touch.
“Possibly. I would cut him were I to keep him as mine. It would stop his upwards growth and soften him nicely, probably give another couple of years of use for pleasure. But while Goudarz knows enough of surgery to mend you louts, I don’t trust him with a treasure like this. And slaves tend to sicken at sea, given the least excuse to do so. Best not to risk it. I know of good surgeons in Umbar, and the agent does as well. He can advise us if the risk is worth the increase in profit.”
Brand struggled to collect himself, to seem merely frightened and not comprehending, so as to not give his captors any idea that he might understand their language, that he was horrified by their blasé discussion of the merits of gelding him. Something that Andrahar had once told him was repeating itself insistently over and over in his still muzzy head. Any knowledge of your enemy that you can gain is to your advantage. But the knowledge he does not know that you have is of the greatest use of all.
“Take him below, and unbind him and the other boy and feed and water them,” the captain commanded. “And if the little ones are waking, feed them as well. We’re far enough out to sea now-they can howl all they like.”
“Aye, Captain,” Nezam said, and he and the other man, who had not spoken the entire time, each lifted Brand up and set him upon his feet. He staggered, still dizzy, and they both took an elbow to usher him from the captain’s cabin. They came out onto the deck, and the sight of the rising and falling waves undid Brand’s stomach, still queasy from the drug. He started to retch and cursing, the sailors dragged him to the rail and forced his head over the side until it stopped. There was little enough in his stomach, since he’d never gotten the chance to enjoy Mistress Alfirin’s lunch, and the spasms were soon over, though he felt shaky and he could feel a clammy sweat breaking out upon his face.
Some sailing with his cousin Erchirion had taught him that he had reasonably good sea legs, and that, given a couple of hours, his stomach would adjust. So he forced himself to fight past his nausea, to look about and obtain what information he might about his situation. The sun was dipping towards the horizon, so he’d been unconscious for some hours. The ship was of middling size, a standard Haradric merchant ship, and she seemed trim enough. The coast could be dimly seen off her port side, so they were headed due south, and she was far enough out to sea that Brand suspected she’d left port as soon as he and the other children had arrived on board.
I will be missed any time now, but will they be able to figure out what happened to me, or will they spend days looking for me in the town? he thought despairingly. And even if they do figure it out, could even Foam-flyer catch this ship with the head-start she has?
“Come on, enough fresh air for you,” growled Nezam in halting Westron, and he and his silent companion dragged Brand towards the hold. He tried to dig in his heels and make things difficult, only to be hoisted up by shoulders and hips and carried unceremoniously down through the hatch like so much cargo. They went down past the crew’s quarters, where hammocks hung like spider-wrapped bundles with the sailors not on shift, through another hatch to the bowels of the ship.
Just out of port, the hold was nearly full of bales and barrels and crates of unidentifiable cargo, all of it probably much more legal than the three children who waited in a barred iron cage against the wall closest to the hatch. Two of them Brand recognized, the boy and girl who had been captured with him, still asleep in a jumbled heap of blankets in the corner of the cage. The other was a dark-haired boy of about ten years, who was awake, his hands tied behind his back, his eyes bright and alert above his gag, watching Brand’s entrance.
“No trouble now, and things will go much easier for you,” Nezam warned as he undid first the boy’s bonds, then Brand’s. The silent sailor blocked the doorway with a scimitar in his hands. “You’ll be fed in a bit, provided you behave,” he added as he swiftly stepped outside the door and closed and locked it with a clang. The two men clattered back up the wooden stairway, leaving the captives alone.
“Name’s Tullus, and oh, am I glad to be rid of that gag!” the other boy volunteered, scrubbing at his face with his hand for a moment before offering that same hand to Brand. Brand shook it.
“I can imagine! I’m Brand. Would you be the fisher-folk lad they were telling me was supposed to have fallen off the wharf and drowned?”
“They’re saying that?” Tullus sounded more disgusted than anything else. “As if I’d drown! I swim like a fish! And I’m hungry as a shark,” he admitted a moment latter, more somberly. “They fed and watered me this morning with a knife to my throat, so I’d not make any noise, but it wasn‘t much, just a bit of ship‘s bread. They caught me yesterday. Stupid mon-keigh!”
“Stupid mon-keigh indeed,” Brandmir agreed. “I saw those two,” and he indicated Celeg and Eiliriel, “going into an alley and followed them because I didn’t like the look of things, only to get caught in the trap myself.”
“Bad luck for you,” Tullus commiserated. “So much for good deeds being rewarded!
“It was more like stupidity being punished,” Brand admitted, for now, thinking about it, he realized with considerable chagrin that he’d been foolish in the extreme not to have simply gone to the nearest constable with his suspicions instead of trying to play the rescuing Swan Knight. The slavers might have been apprehended before they left port, and he would not have been in his current situation. The Captain will have plenty to say about that, should I ever see him again! he thought ruefully. The habit of worrying about keeping his guardian’s good regard was long ingrained in Brand. The day’s confession hadn’t really dampened it at all and his upset over Andrahar’s revelation seemed rather irrelevant at present.
“My father’s a cooper,” Tullus offered. “What does yours do?”
“Mine was a soldier, but he died in the War,” Brand answered, and said no more. This lad did not look to be one of the many folk in Dol Amroth who knew of his connection with the royal house, and he was thinking it would be best to keep it that way. For all he knew, the revelation that he was a member of Imrahil’s family might result in his immediate death and the disposal of the body at sea, if the slavers thought him too dangerous to hold. Once they reached Umbar, he might divulge the information, if the appropriate opportunity presented itself. It would be more safely done, he deemed, on dry land.
Tullus mulled Brand’s statement and eyed his clothes, which were of plain, but reasonably fine cloth, then made a guess about Brand’s status. “Does your family work in the palace?” he asked.
Brand thought of Imrahil, probably just now finishing a long day dispensing justice to his folk, and his cousins, all busy with their own duties, and smiled a little sadly. “Yes,” he replied, truthfully enough.
“I thought you spoke too fair to be one of us dock-folk. What…what do you think is going to happen to us?” Tullus was obviously a resilient lad, but he looked worried as he asked the question.
“I think that they are going to take us to Umbar and sell us as slaves in the markets there.”
“What is it like, being a slave?”
“I don’t know myself, but I was told once by someone who had been one that it is not much fun. The person who buys you owns you, like a horse or dog and can do what they like with you-even kill you. And you have to do what they say, whether you want to or not, or they whip you or worse.”
Tullus sat quietly for a moment, absorbing this information. Then, in a very small voice, he asked, “Do you think that anyone will come after us? Gondor’s navy, or ours?”
Brand sighed. “I don’t know. You’ve been missing for over a day, but the man I talked to said that people thought you’d drowned. I am expected home tonight for dinner, but they’ll only be missing me just now, and they might not realize that I’ve been taken aboard a ship. Besides, I don’t know if a ship anchored in Dol Amroth right now could catch this ship, even if it sailed right away.”
“Then there’s nothing we can do?”
“Not that I can think of,” Brand admitted sadly, and the two of them fell silent.
About an hour later, Celeg and Eiliriel woke up, and they were not much pleased when they did so. Eiliriel in particular was distraught, crying for her mother and father, and there was little Brand could do or say to comfort her. It didn’t help that a smell of cooking had permeated even down to the hold, and that they were all very hungry. Nezam eventually came down and bellowed at them.
“Quiet, you, or there will be no supper!” That frightened the two younger children into silence, and Brand felt somewhat guiltily grateful for it. True, he’d had long experience in dealing with little ones, but he’d also had an almost two year respite from the necessity, other than taking care of Alphros for an hour or two from time to time, and his own nerves were so abraded at present that it was difficult to find the energy to make the effort. He kept remembering the feel of the man’s hands upon him, and he was a realist enough to know that that had been just the first of many indignities that would be heaped upon him in his new life.
What is the braver thing to do? he wondered, to fight them at every turn, until they slay you for being too much trouble, or to endure and bide your time until the day comes when you can strike out for your freedom? The Captain endured; but then, he had been born a slave. When he decided to strike out, that must have been very hard, to go against everything he had been raised up to. To decide for himself that he was a free man and not chattel, and to do what he had to do to make it happen-I cannot imagine the force of will that took. I don’t think I’m so strong.
Perhaps endurance is the better course-the longer I last, the better the chance that someone will discover that I’m actually in Umbar and get me out-if they can be troubled to do so. That was a particularly dark thought, that a search might be done and then his relatives would return untroubled to their lives, the bastard having gone as easily as he’d come. But he didn’t believe it and quickly dismissed it. Imrahil and his family were not such people, nor was his Uncle Faramir. As for Andrahar…whatever conclusion Brand might reach about how he felt about the Commander’s relationship with his father, one thing he did know-if Andrahar discovered Brand was in Umbar, he would come down there himself, alone if necessary, and tear the city apart to find him.
Which heartened him somewhat, until the next dark thought occurred-what if they do geld me? Would anyone want me back then, when I wasn’t a whole man? That, he decided, would be the final sticking point. He would put up with whatever they did until it came to that, and then he would fight. Because he didn’t think he wanted to live as a eunuch. And if they somehow managed to get it done, well, he was of the blood of Numenor, wasn’t he? Such men could take themselves out of life and he would do that, if he could discover the way of it. He would return to Gondor whole, or not at all.
As plans went, it was not much of one, but Brand was amazed at how comforted he felt. It was as Andrahar had said, on more than one occasion: any plan is better than none.
A stronger scent of cooking reached his nose then, and there was a clattering sound as Nezam, the silent sailor and another sailor Brand had not seen yet came downstairs, carrying wooden bowls and cups, a small loaf and a pot wrapped in cloths.
“You lad, come up here and pass this out,” Nezam commanded Tullus, who looked eager to do so. “You stay where you are, and no trouble,” he told Brand, as he opened the door. He obviously remembered Brand’s willingness to use his knife. The loaf came first, and Tullus brought that back to Brand, then bowls of what turned out to be a seafood stew were ladled out.
“There are no spoons!” Tullus protested. Nezam cuffed him across the top of the head.
“No, and you’ll get none, either! Wait till it cools a bit and eat it with your fingers. Mop up the rest with the bread. And don’t expect it to stay this fancy-we’re just out of port. Fare will get plainer later on. The captain always spoils you lot, but then, he’s not lost a slave yet.”
One by one, Tullus brought bowls to everyone. The silent sailor went off into the hold, and there was a sound of water sloshing. He returned with the cups full of water obviously dipped from one of the barrels. Tullus brought those to Brand, who took them in charge so that they would not spill.
Chores done, the sailors lingered for a moment, watching their charges and talking in Haradric. Brand kept his head bent over the cups, that they might not see a reaction which would betray he had knowledge of their tongue.
“Nice lot,” the unknown sailor said. “You did well, Nezam.”
“So the captain said,” Nezam replied complacently.
“Did he say you could keep that fancy knife you got off the big lad?”
Brand was hard pressed to keep his head down at that. Complacency gone from his voice, Nezam snapped, “Yes, he did, and you keep your nose out of it, Sharhdad! ‘Tis none of your affair!”
“It’s my affair that the two of you don’t seem to wonder how a dock-lad came by a knife like that!”
“Mayhap he stole it! They’ve got their wharf-rats same as us!”
“And mayhap that lad is something more than he looks, with that hair and skin and eyes!” Brand could feel the sailor’s eyes intent upon him as he sat bent over the cups. Sharhdad spoke again a moment later, and his tone had changed entirely, to something that made Brand’s skin crawl. “West-man arse like that is hard to find. I wouldn’t object to a piece of it. He’s a beauty.”
“Training, if there’s to be any of it at all between here and Umbar, is the captain’s business,” Nezam said dismissively. “You can apply to him, Sharhdad, if you’re feeling frisky, but I doubt he’ll agree. You’ve too heavy a hand-among other things.”
A bellow came down the hatch. “Nezam! Sharhdad! Hirad! Are you hand-feeding them? Get your worthless carcasses up here!” The silent sailor immediately gathered up the pot, and started back upstairs. Nezam cast an eye over his charges.
“We’ll be back for the bowls and cups. See you don’t break any.” And he and Sharhdad followed Hirad.
When they had gone, Brand arranged himself tailor fashion, tucking the cups into his lap that they would not spill, and called the two younger children over to him. He helped them with their bowls of stew, blowing and dipping his own fingers into the hot stuff, then blowing on it some more before giving them their bites. Hand-feeding, as the captain had said, but it got the food into them faster and they did not object. Tullus managed his own perfectly well. When the stew had cooled sufficiently that the younger children could handle it on their own, Brand left them to it and addressed himself to his own meal. The sailors had rather surprisingly given him a portion in keeping with his greater size, and by the time he got through it, his stomach was feeling better than it had since he’d come on board.
The same could not be said for poor Eiliriel, who vomited her supper almost as soon as she’d finished eating it. Brand, who’d seen it coming, had given the water into Tullus’ keeping and tried to get her to the bucket hooked to the cage next to the door. He’d not quite made it. The smell set her brother off as well, but Brand managed to get him to the bucket. The bucket, to which Tullus had obviously contributed at one point, was already noisome, and the vomit on the cage floor made matters worse.
Brand, who had lived now for two years in a house that was arguably the most cleanly in Gondor, and who had developed matching habits of cleanliness himself, found it harder to bear than he might have when he was younger and living at his carter stepfather’s house. But strangely enough, it also inspired an almost hysterically hilarious thought-Try as I might, I’ll never escape buckets of piss! This is the tanner’s revenge for being deprived of his apprentice! For he had indeed been ‘prenticed to a tanner, the contract signed and sealed, when Andrahar had bought him out of that bondage.
He made the younger children drink their water then, to wash the taste out of their mouths and put the liquids back into them, as Cuilast was wont to say. The Swan Knights’ healer was a tiger about people keeping enough liquids in them, known to come down to the lists and badger people into drinking on hot days, even despite Andrahar’s protests at the interruption. The heel of bread Brand which had torn from the loaf as his portion for supper, he decided to keep against future need. Perhaps Celeg and Eiliriel would be able to keep small pieces of that down later in the night, when their stomachs would hopefully have settled a little. They were both complaining of hunger again, but he thought it better to wait a bit. No such problems with Tullus-he apparently possessed a rock-solid digestive system.
“If you’ve got any business to do, you’d best go ahead and do it,” he informed his fellow captives. He pointed at the solitary lantern that hung near the hatchway. “They’ll be down to take that away eventually, and there will be no light down here till tomorrow. That’s what they did last night.” Tullus went up a notch in Brand’s estimation-the lad had been alone the night before, in total darkness, but seemed unfazed by the experience.
However, the prospect did not please Celeg and Eiliriel. Brand tried to forestall more crying by being as hearty and matter-of-fact as possible. “You won’t be alone, you know,” he said encouragingly. “We’ll make these blankets into a bed and all snuggle down together. But it would be best that if you need to go, you go soon. It will be very hard to find the bucket in the dark.”
Eiliriel was modest, and required Brand to hold one of the blankets up between herself and the boys and promise not to peek himself before she would agree to go and it was quite a while before she accomplished it. Celeg was a lot less trouble and Tullus was, of course, an old hand at it. Once they’d all used the bucket, Brand got them involved in helping to make the bed. It was somewhat close and stuffy as far below decks as they were, but the sea was beginning to cool with the advance of autumn and that chill was seeping through the hull. There were three blankets in the heap in the corner, and Brand spread one of them to soften the hard deck and kept the other two for covers.
He had expected that the younger children might be difficult to persuade to sleep, due to their involuntary nap earlier; but like him, they seemed to be suffering from a residual weariness because of the drugs and lay down willingly enough in the center of the makeshift bed. Brand and Tullus took the two outside spots. There were a few moments of silent fidgeting, as everyone settle themselves, then Eiliriel said, “Big boy, do you know any stories? Mama always tells us stories when we go to bed.”
Brand sighed. He’d heard tales of Imrahil’s legendary bed-time stories, but Alphros was only just now old enough to begin to appreciate them and Brand had not yet been present at a telling of one of the Dread Pirate Erchirion tales. But he’d had to entertain his younger brothers and sisters upon occasion, though they’d been a younger audience than all of his current companions save Eiliriel, and he remembered the stories his mother had told him.
“Have you ever heard the tale of Callon?” he asked the children after a moment’s thought. Tullus chimed in enthusiastically.
“Which one? There are lots!”
“I was thinking of the one about Callon and the Magic Beans.”
“Oh, that’s a good one!” Tullus exclaimed.
“Yes, tell that one,” Celeg agreed quietly. Though he’d not taken to weeping like his sister had, he was very subdued, a far cry from the cursing, feisty youngster who’d defied Brand earlier that very same day. Brand wasn’t sure if that was because of the drugs, or his circumstances. Eiliriel merely clutched the blanket up to her chin and nodded agreement.
Brand took a moment to organize the story in his mind, then began. “Once there was a boy named Callon, a poor boy who lived with his mother on a poor farm at the foot of Morthond Vale. Callon’s father was a brave soldier who had perished in the skirmishes in the years before the Ring War, and his death left Callon and his mother struggling to feed themselves. Things had come to such a pass that eventually his mother told him that they must sell their milch cow, for they’d not be able to feed her through the winter, while with the money from the sale, they might at least be able to feed themselves.”
“It was a white cow, don’t forget that,” Tullus put in.
“It was indeed a white cow,” Brand agreed before he continued, “and Callon was very fond of her, so it was with a heavy heart that he set off to market. He was fearful that their neighbor, who was a cruel man, would buy Fain, for that was her name, and mistreat her. But he never got to the market, for on the way he met a stooped old man in a hooded cloak, who carried a great staff in his hand.”
“A wizard!” Tullus exclaimed. Celeg sat up on one elbow.
“A wizard? Really?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed,” said Brand. “He was a real wizard, a friend to all animals, whose name was Radagast. ‘That’s a fine cow you have there,’ he said to Callon, and before Callon knew it, he found himself telling the wizard all his troubles, for Radagast was just that sort of person, so kind that even the shyest beast would confide in him.”
“What happened to the cow?” whispered Eilinel.
“I’m coming to that. Radagast heard Callon’s tale out to its sad end, leaning thoughtfully on his staff. When Callon was finished, he said, “Lad, I’m a wizard who tends beasts and unlike men, they have no coin to offer in return for my services, though they sometimes give me other things. I will take your Fain and give her the best of homes, for I’ve need of a good milch cow, but I’ve nothing to offer you except this magic bean a badger gave me in return for healing his hurt leg. But if you use it wisely, it might bring you much good fortune.”
“And how do I use it wisely?” Callon asked the wizard. But wizards seldom answer a question straightly and so it proved this time.
“Oh, you’ll know what to do when the time comes,” Radagast assured him, and would explain no more.
“Well, Callon knew that his mother would be wroth with him, and he hadn’t the least idea what he was going to do with the bean, but he knew that Fain would be safe with Radagast, and that mattered more to him than his own often empty belly, so he agreed to the trade.”
“Was the cow happy?” Eiliriel asked.
“She was indeed. She went home with Radagast to his home up in the hills where all the beasts came to visit him and she had grass in the summer and the finest hay and oats in the winter and she gave him all the milk he ever wanted or needed.”
“Yes, it was.”
“I bet Callon’s mother was really mad at him when he went home,” Celeg said, with the knowledgeable air of someone whose mother was angry with him on a frequent basis.
“Actually, she wasn’t angry at first. For Callon was a truthful lad and at first his mother believed that the bean was magic. She thought it might be a bean rather like the Ever-full Porridge Pot of legend. So she set a pot to boil on the hearth and put the bean in the water, expecting that it would make more beans and fill the pot. But it just sat bumping around in the bottom of the pot and did nothing.”
“THAT was when she got angry! ‘You are a fool, Callon, a well-meaning fool, but a fool nonetheless, and your folly will be the death of us!’ she told him, and dumped the pot of water with the bean in it out the front door. Then she went off to her bed to wait until she starved to death.”
“Did the mama starve?” Eiliriel seemed upset by that idea.
“No, or at least not immediately,” Brand made haste to say. “She went to bed, and Callon did too, and despite the growling of their empty bellies, sleep eventually found them both. But when they woke up in the morning, they found a very strange thing had happened. They thought at first that they’d woken up early or slept the whole day through into the night, for their little cottage was almost dark as night. And that was because of the huge-”
“-beanstalk!” Tullus crowed.
“-that had grown up in front of their house during the night,” Brand finished with a mock-severe glower at Tullus. “Do you want to tell the rest of this story?”
“Oh no, you can do it,” Tullus said blithely, and Celeg and Eiliriel laughed.
“Very well then, but no more interruptions! So there was this huge beanstalk right in front of their door and no matter how far back they craned their heads, they could not see the top of it, for it vanished into the very clouds that hung over the peaks of the White Mountains. And when Callon saw this, he thought that he understood what Radagast had told him, and he knew that he should climb up the beanstalk to seek his fortune.”
“But his mother, despite berating him the night before for a fool, loved him and was not eager for him to hazard himself in such a way, and begged him to stay. Callon would not be moved. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘T’was I who lost our last hope of surviving the winter and ‘tis I who must make amends. This adventure was meant for me, I think.’ And so despite her pleas, he set his foot in the crook of one of the bottom branches and pushed himself upwards.”
“I bet that was a very long climb,” Tullus noted. “Taller even than the tallest ship’s mast.”
“Much taller,” Brand agreed. “Taller than ten, no, twenty ship’s masts all stacked on top of each other! I don’t know how Callon did it! I hope he didn’t look down! But whether he looked down or not eventually he climbed up all the way to the place where the beanstalk poked through the clouds and through the clouds themselves, and he found a palace! And he wasn’t sure if it were a palace in the clouds or on the peaks of the mountains, but whichever it was, it must belong to a very large person, for the door was ten times Callon’s height, and he could never have reached the latch. But the door was ajar, and so he was able to slip inside.”
“What did he find inside?” Celeg asked, and there was finally a drowsy hesitance in his voice that Brand was glad to hear.
“He found that it was a very grand house, with very heavy curtains upon the windows, and everything within, though it was all very fine, was made for someone who was as tall as ten men! He saw no one and kept close to the walls in his wanderings, like a mouse he felt, and eventually he came to a room that was full of treasure!”
“What kind of treasure?” Tullus asked with relish.
“Oh piles of gold, and piles of silver, and yet more piles of pearls and gems, each sorted into heaps of their own kinds. And jewelry of all sorts, and crowns and cups and plates and swords and armor. Almost anything wonderful you could think of was there, and on the top of the heap in the place of honor was a golden harp, whose pillar was shaped like a beautiful elf-woman.”
“What’s a pillar?” Tullus inquired. Celeg yawned, and Tullus finally did so as well. Brand stole a quick look at Eiliriel, and found that her eyes were closed.
“The front part of the harp.”
“And to Callon’s amazement, the harp-lady opened her eyes and turned her head towards him and said in a sweet and melodious voice, ‘Lad, ‘tis your death to remain here, for this is the home of a most ancient and terrible giant and boys are his favorite food! Flee now, while you have the chance!”
“What did Callon do?” came yet another Tullus question, this one punctuated fore and aft by yawns. Brand smiled.
“I think that the rest of the tale can wait until tomorrow. Eiliriel is asleep, and she will want to hear it too. Good night, Celeg. Good night, Tullus.” There was no answer from Celeg, who had followed his sister into sleep, but Tullus huddled further under the blankets and sighed.
“Good night, Brandmir. It’s a good story so far.”
“I’m glad you liked it.”
Tullus said no more, and a little while later, Brand heard a tiny, soft snore from the far side of the blankets. Sleep was not so kind to him. He lay awake, staring up at the deck above him, listening to the rumble of the sailors’ comings and goings above his head and the rushing of water past the hull, all too aware of the immensity of the black depths beneath the shallow shell of their vessel. He wondered how Erchirion or any sailor could contemplate that and still go to sea. The smells from the bucket and Eiliriel’s rejected dinner were harder to ignore now that he was still and did not have the story-telling to distract him, and he knew that it was just the beginning; that without access to fresh water for baths and trapped beneath the deck in this noxious pen like animals, they would all smell far worse before the journey ended.
It’s a good story so far. Would that their own tale was progressing so well! He thought about what it would be like to stand naked on the block in the slave-market of Umbar, his destiny in the hands of whoever had the most money to purchase it. The strange turns his life had taken thus far, from stable-boy to near-prince and back down the social ladder to the lowest of the low, a slave, were as strange as any story ever told to amuse sleepy children. As strange as Andrahar’s, in fact! he thought, unappreciative of the irony. It’s as if I’m living his tale in reverse. He was a slave in Umbar and went to Dol Amroth and found good fortune. I went to Dol Amroth and found good fortune, then was sent to Umbar to be a slave.
Would his courage be equal to the tests before him? He wondered, and worried about the answer. Worse than the fear of death or mutilation was the fear that he would dishonor himself in some way, fail those who had taught him so much in the last two years. And he wondered as well about what his father would have done in such a situation. Would Boromir have made the choice Brand had decided upon earlier, to endure until the opportunity for escape arose? Or would he have thrown himself over the rail when brought to it, choosing to give himself to the Sea rather than suffer the humiliation that was bound to follow? Which was truly the braver course? Even Andrahar’s advice conflicted itself here, for death before dishonor and survival is the truest victory both held places in the Commander’s personal philosophy.
Not for the first time, Brand wondered what his father would have thought of him, in the unlikely chance they could ever have met. But this time he also wondered what he would have thought of Boromir, given what he knew about the Captain-General now. He had listened to the tales of those who had loved Boromir the best, always seeking some sense of what his father had been about. And one and all, those tales had been of someone who was to be admired, brave and stalwart, dedicated to the defense of his country. Some of them had also spoken of his sense of humor, depicting a man who could laugh at himself more easily than at others. How could Brand reconcile those things with that letter, the one that ended-You were the greatest joy of my life, Andra? Or was any sort of reconciliation even necessary? If a man was a good man, did it truly matter who he slept with? Could the culture Brand had grown up in be mistaken in its condemnation of lovers of men? There was evidence that his great-uncle seemed to think so, and the King as well. And they were both very wise men…
Brand’s thoughts tread this incessant, weary round like an ox threshing grain until exhaustion enabled sleep to claim him at last. He never noticed when they came to take the light away.