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5
"I give you my word as a lord of Gondor..."

Like Brand, I was dithering about how to keep the sailors off him in this chapter. Then Dwimordene casually mentioned, "There's that lantern..."


~~~

“You killed him!” Tullus gasped, but he seemed admirably in command of himself. Eiliriel was still screaming and her brother was weeping.

“I had to. He was going to kill us.” Though Nezam had not had hold of him long, Brand found that his voice was hoarse and talking painful, and he had to speak low in any event, to avoid being overheard. “Strangle us and wrap us in sailcloth and weight us and throw us over the side before the warship reached us. That’s what he and the captain were talking about upstairs. They’ll all hang if they’re found with us aboard.” He stripped his knife’s scabbard off Nezam’s belt, touching the man as little as he could in the process, and put it back on his own belt. Wiping the blade clean of blood, he then sheathed it.

“You speak Haradric?” Tullus asked, also speaking quietly.

“I do. A little. Just enough, as things turned out. Tullus, that is a war-ship coming after us. They’re coming after me. The Prince himself is on board. He’s my great-uncle.”

Tullus cursed then, a curse that would have gotten Brand’s mouth washed out with soap in any of the households he’d ever inhabited. “Of course! You’re Brandmir! How stupid of me!” He gave Brand a hurt look. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Because I didn’t want anyone to know. I was afraid they’d decide I was too dangerous to have aboard and do to me what they just tried to do to all of us.”

“That makes sense,” Tullus agreed after a moment’s consideration. “What should we do now, my lord?” He seemed much happier with an official authority figure at hand.

“The captain may send someone down to help Nezam at any moment. He doesn’t have much time to accomplish our deaths and dispose of us. We have to stay alive until Foam-flyer reaches us.”

“Foam-flyer herself?”

“I’m pretty sure. My cousin Erchirion was in port and it’s the fastest ship on the coast.”

Foam-flyer is the fastest ship anywhere! She was the ship you were on for a couple of days?”

“Yes. Tullus, we can talk about that later! Right now, we need to get Celeg and Eiliriel out of here and find someplace in the hold they can hide.” Nezam had carried no sword, but Brand helped himself to the key to the cage. It was on a ring with a couple of other keys. Tullus began trying to quiet the two children, but gave it up as a bad job after a few moments and settled for trying to get them to move past Nezam’s body. They actually were surprisingly willing to do that, though they stepped carefully around the puddle of blood seeping into the deck. Once out of the cage, Eiliriel wanted to go up the stairs. She was no longer screaming, but when Tullus tried to direct her into the darkness of the hold instead, she started crying more loudly.

Swiftly, Brand finished draping the blankets over Nezam’s body so that it was completely obscured, then stepped out of the cage. He picked up Eiliriel and carried her into the depths of the hold, his hand over her mouth. Celeg was urged along behind with Tullus.

“Hush, sweetling,” Brand murmured to the little girl. “It was all right to scream and cry for a little while, because they thought that man was down here killing all of us. But he would be finished by now, and you have to play dead, do you understand? That goes for you as well, Celeg. We’re going to find you a mouse-hole to hide in and you two have to pretend to be quiet little mice.”

“What’s going to happen to us?” Celeg asked. Brand let go of Eiliriel’s mouth and she looked up at him indignantly, her face hot and swollen. “You have blood on your hands, Big Boy. And you got it on me. And you stink!” Strangely, she did not seem overly upset about the source of that blood. Thank the Valar for the single-mindedness of children! he thought to himself wryly.

“I’m sorry, Eiliriel,” he said aloud in a low, raspy tone. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to wash up later. Now listen, the two of you-you heard me talking to Tullus?” They nodded. “Then you know about the ship. We need to stay alive until it catches up. There may be more people coming down here soon. Tullus and I are going to deal with them while you hide. If something happens to us, I want you to keep hiding and stay quiet-unless someone comes down here who you know is Gondorian, and then you can let them know where you are. Do you understand me?” Another nod from each of them. “Very well then, let’s look for a place to be your mouse hole. It’s going to be dark, but don’t worry-Tullus and I will be out here.”

Finding a hiding place turned out to be easier said than done, for the cargo was densely packed and well secured against the sea’s motion. Short on time, Brand had to settle for making the two younger children squeeze into the space above some bales of what looked like linen and the deck above. “Be very quiet!” he reminded them in a hoarse whisper, and they nodded and squirmed back into the darkness.

His heart and mind were both racing. Others will be down here any time now, when Nezam doesn’t come back up! I can’t fight grown men with a knife! I need something to keep them off! But what? Brand cast his eyes about the hold, desperately seeking something to use as a weapon-and his eye fell upon the lantern, which had been brought down with their breakfast, and forgotten, still burned dimly upon its hook. Brand had learned much from his brief voyage with Erchirion. And one of the things he had learned was that sailors feared nothing more than a fire at sea. Erchirion had given him quite the lecture on shipboard protocol for dealing with open flame almost as soon as he had come on board.

“Tullus!” he hissed to the smaller boy, “See if you can find some lamp oil! Something that will burn well. And anything that might be used as a weapon.” He himself dragged the blankets out of the cage, baring Nezam’s body once more, dropping them at the bottom of the stairs, then hurried to a linen bale closest to the cage and slashed at the wrappings with his knife. Sea-steel was coveted for a reason-the keen edge made swift work of the bindings and protecting coverings. Brand found the end of a piece and started pulling. Soon he had a couple of lengths of fine linen, which he carried over to the pile of blankets and dropped on top of them.

“Over here, Brand!” Tullus called softly, and Brand turned to find that he was indicating a barrel with a spigot on a stand. “But it’s bolted onto the stand and the stand is fastened to the wall.”

“That’s all right.” Brand went to get the noisome bucket, thinking how useful it had been thus far this day, and brought it over to the barrel, opened the spigot and started to fill it.

“I found an axe too,” Tullus informed him, and indeed there was a small axe beside him, not much bigger than a hatchet.

“That’s good, Tullus! You can keep that. Here, watch the bucket for a moment.” Leaving Tullus to continue filling the bucket, Brand went back for more linen to add to the pile. He returned to find Tullus watching him with wide eyes and the beginning of comprehension. “That should be enough,” he said, indicating the bucket which was nearly filled. Tullus turned off the spigot.

“You’re going to threaten to fire the ship?” he asked, his eyes wide.

Brand nodded, and took up the bucket to slop the oil all over his pile of cloth. “It’s the only thing I can think of, Tullus, and I apologize to you in advance. If the fire actually starts, we could end up trapped down here. We’d have to go to the forward cargo hatch and try to get through it with the other children, or try to get up on top of some of that stuff and axe our way through the deck.” They looked at each other grimly for a moment, both knowing the odds of accomplishing either plan were slim. “Now you go hide with the others.”

Tullus shook his head, and hefted the axe. “No, I’ll stay out here with you.”

“Then go around to the back of the stairs and hide in the shadows. They might try something stupid with a bow. No need to give them two targets. And don’t go attacking anyone unless they actually try to attack me. Then you can chop their legs out from under them if you like.”

“Aye aye, my lord.” Irrepressible as always, Tullus shot him a grin as he slipped under the stairs and Brand couldn’t help but smile back. Finishing with the bucket, he set it aside, took the lantern down from its hook and stood over the pile of oil-soaked fabric. No sooner had he done so when footsteps were heard on their way down to the second deck. They paused at the top of the stairs.

“Nezam? Are you done yet?” It was Sharhdad’s voice. “I’ve got the sailcloth. Let’s drag them up here to wrap them so we don’t have to carry the full weight all the way up.”

Brand did not respond. After a moment, the sailor called again. “Nezam? Are you down there?” When there was still no answer, Sharhdad said “Raghid, go down there and see what is taking so long. We haven’t much time to finish this, and the captain commands that we hasten.”

The sailor named Raghid did not seem happy at being given the task. He moved slowly down the stairs, calling Nezam’s name and froze when he saw Brand standing at the bottom. His eyes moved swiftly about, taking in the lantern and the oil-soaked cloth and the body of his dead shipmate, then he scrambled back up the stairs.

“Sharhdad, Nezam’s dead!”

“What?” Cursing, Sharhdad came down the stairs. He wore a short-bladed scimitar and it was ready in his hand. Like Raghid, he stopped in his tracks at the sight of Brand.

“Still wanting a piece of Westman arse, Southron?” Brand asked in Haradric. “Are you prepared to burn for it?” His voice did not sound like his own in his ears-it was harsh and raspy, but that was probably all for the best. It helped to hide the quaver he was trying to suppress. “I already told Nezam what I am going to tell you. He ignored me and he died. I think that you might be wiser. I hope for both our sakes you are! I am Brandmir son of Boromir of Gondor. The Steward of Gondor is my uncle. The Prince of Dol Amroth, that gentleman in the ship closing upon you as we speak, is my great-uncle. He and my cousin Prince Erchirion are going to fall upon you like a storm if you don’t do exactly as I say. Get your captain, and only your captain, unless you’re so fond of your Sacred Fire that you’d rather burn.”

“I knew you were more than you appeared to be!” Sharhdad snarled. “You fire the ship and you’ll burn with us, boy!”

“I am prepared to do that. 'Tis better than what awaits me in Umbar or in Khand. You have already tried to kill me once today-I am on borrowed time as it is. I have nothing more to say to you, Sharhdad, and you are wasting precious time-go get your captain!”

Still cursing, the sailor retreated back up the stairs with his companion. Brand waited, the lantern held carefully in his hand. In a very short while, there was a clatter of more footsteps coming down the stairs, and the man who had examined him so casually in the cabin the day before stood before him. The captain looked strained and apprehensive, and that apprehension certainly did not lessen when he took in the tableau before him.

Prince Imrahil had described his late father Boromir to Brand once. “He was simply confident, most of the time. He had the gift of a good commander, the ability to make a decision and stick to it, not second-guessing himself. He trusted himself, and his men sensed that, so they trusted him as well.” Brand wondered if the semblance of confidence could become the real thing, or at the very least, work just as well if the fear beneath were not discerned. He suspected he was about to find out. He lifted his head and set his jaw.

“Good afternoon, captain. Did Sharhdad tell you who I am?”

“He did. But I do not believe it. It is well known even in Harad that Boromir of Gondor never took a wife!”

“I am his bastard son.”

The captain’s face twisted in revulsion. “And you dare to speak his name?”

Belatedly, Brand remembered the Haradric prohibition against doing such. “We are not in Harad, captain. Customs are different in Gondor and these are Gondorian waters. That ship behind you-it is swan-prowed, is it not?” The captain nodded. “The ship is the Foam-flyer, captained by my cousin Prince Erchirion. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?”

“All who sail these waters know of the Admiral,” the captain conceded. “And of his witch-vessel, built by the pairiki.”

“He is looking for me. Bastard though I may be, I am a recognized bastard and made a lord of Gondor by my late father’s kin.”

“’Tis a pretty tale you spin, boy, to save your skin-making yourself out to be a lordling!” the captain snorted. “Bastards have no honor-why should I believe you?”

He began to ease down the stairs and Brand hefted the lantern threateningly.

“If my tale is not true, then why is the Prince of Dol Amroth on that ship? You yourself have said it is flying the royal standard. And it’s headed straight for you! Somehow you were discovered, captain. My kin know that you have me and they want me back-you may believe that or not at your peril.” The captain drifted down another step. “But even if you don’t believe me, do you really want to provoke a desperate bastard with nothing to lose and no honor?” Lowering the lantern uncomfortably close to the oil-soaked cloth, Brand bared his teeth and snarled. “Get back up those stairs now, if you don’t want this ship to burn! Even if I am lying and Foam-flyer is abroad for some other purpose, if I fire the ship she will come to assist you-the law of the sea demands it!” Erchirion had told him that. The captain retreated hastily back up the stairs, dismayed.

“You have a poor set of choices here, captain,” Brand declared. “You can burn or drown or hang. Or you can do as I say. My kinsmen will overtake and board you, because you cannot possibly outrun Foam-flyer. It’s too late to kill me and dispose of me-they are too close.” Brand had no idea if that was in fact the case, but it certainly sounded good. “My cousin Amrothos makes very good spyglasses, and since they know you have me, if they see you pitch anything resembling a body over the side, they’ll hang you from your own spars and burn your ship afterwards. Well, they will hang the crew. I suspect your own death would be somewhat more…prolonged… at Captain Andrahar’s hands. Because if the Prince is on that ship, then the Tiger of Dol Amroth is as well. Did I mention that Captain Andrahar is my sword-master?” Which was not exactly the truth, but Andrahar had explained the importance of the sword-master/pupil relationship in Haradric society and in many ways, it was closest to what he and Brand shared.

The captain actually looked queasy upon hearing that news-Andrahar apparently had quite the reputation amongst his former countrymen. Heartened, Brand continued. “If you attempt to send men down to rush me, I will set the ship on fire. But if you slacken sail, and allow yourself to be overtaken and boarded so that I and those in my charge may be returned to my kinsmen, then I give you my word as a lord of Gondor that you will be spared. For this single time only, captain. It would be ill-advised for you to ever return to Gondorian waters again-your life and ship would be forfeit. But for today, you will still have your life and your ship and your livelihood. What say you?”

Brand saw hope flower in the captain’s eyes, and felt it start to burgeon within him as well.

“Your can truly give your word as a lord of Gondor?”

“I can and I do, sir.” For the very first time, and oh, I hope that the Captain and Grandy will hold to it!

“Will you come up with me then, my lord, to wait?” The respectful address might have told Brand he had won-had he not seen the calculating glint in the captain’s eyes.

“And have you use me as a hostage in some ill-advised scheme of your own? I think not, captain. Things will remain as they are until you do as I say and someone in Dol Amroth livery comes down those stairs to get me. Then and only then will I blow the lantern out.”

“See that you keep a good grip on it, then!” the Haradrim snapped. Much more confident of a sudden, Brand grinned, realizing that the captain had indeed probably had some plot in mind.

“It’s in my best interest to do so,” he reminded the man. “Shouldn’t you be going above, captain? You have orders to give.”

More Haradric curses accompanied the captain as he stomped upstairs. Some of them were new to Brand, and he contemplated for a moment the improvement to his Haradric vocabulary this journey was turning out to be. Tullus came out from his hiding place again, peering up the stairs.

“What happened, my lord?”

“He is going to slacken sail and let them board us. I promised him that he would go free.”

Tullus frowned. “After what he did to us? And you? After nearly killing us?”

“I agree, it sits ill with me as well, Tullus. But it was the only coin I had to barter with. Getting you children safely out of here was the most important thing.”

The younger boy looked startled. “No, getting you out of here was the most important thing, my lord.”

“That’s not what I’ve been taught,” Brand sighed. “And enough with the “my lords”, Tullus! It’s been just Brand all along, and it can stay that way. We’ve both fought this battle together after all.”

Tullus grinned, pleased. “Very well, Brand. What happens now?”

“Now we wait.” Taking a firm grip on the lantern, Brand leaned against the wall and situated himself to do just that.

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

The sound of water rushing past the hull lessened shortly after the captain gained the upper decks and shouted some orders. There was nothing for a long time, then the muffled sounds of more shouting could be heard, in two different voices. Then, after another pause, there was the thud of wood on wood and the ship rocked with the impact of another large body. Brand nearly lost the lantern then, and gulping, tightened his grip upon it. Some scraping sounds echoed through the hold and a thunderous sound of many booted feet came down from above.

“Marines, or Swan Knights, or both,” Brand murmured to Tullus, who was listening with his face alight.

More shouted orders and the movement of men above, then relative silence after all the noise. After a few more minutes had passed, there was a sound of footsteps coming down the stairs above, then pausing at the top of the hold stairs.

“Brandmir? Are you down there?” It was Captain Andrahar’s voice, and to Brand’s horror, at the very sound of it, his eyes watered up in relief.

“Yes, sir,” he managed to choke out as he opened the lantern, blew out the flame and hung it back on its hook. The tip of a scimitar appeared on the stairway, followed by a pair of highly polished, silver spurred boots, and then the rest of the Commander of the Swan Knights followed.

Andrahar’s black eyes swept the parts of the hold he could see, and fastened upon Nezam for a moment, widening slightly in surprise.

“Did you do that?” he asked Brand, indicating the corpse with the tip of his blade.

“Yes, sir.”

“I… see. We can talk about that later. You are wanted above, my lord.” Andrahar’s formality bracing him a bit, Brand swallowed hard and nodded.

“Very well, captain. Can you help me with the others?”

Andrahar nodded. “How many?”

“Three. Two boys and a girl.”

“That would tally with what we discovered in Dol Amroth,” the Armsmaster said.

Brand went over to the two younger children’s hiding place and said, “You can come out now, you two. It’s all right.” With some rustling and complaining and many accusations of mutual poking, the two emerged. Brand lifted them down.

“Are we going home now, Big Boy?” Eiliriel asked.

“We are indeed,” Brand assured them, and Celeg gave an excited hop.

“Yay! It’s about time!” Eiliriel was regarding Andrahar’s dark complexion with some suspicion.

“Is that one of our men?”

“He is indeed. That is Captain Andrahar, commander of the Swan Knights.” Tullus’ eyes were huge.

“Captain Andrahar himself! My da is never going to believe this!”

“It will get even better yet, Tullus. You’ll see.” Brand picked up Eiliriel and settled her on his hip. Andrahar sheathed his sword and scooped up Celeg, who, unlike his sister, seemed to have no suspicion of him at all, and the five of them started up the stairs and back into the light.

Brand blinked as the bright autumn afternoon sun hit his eyes coming up out of the hold, and he stumbled slightly, but did not drop Eiliriel, who squeaked when he lurched. The merchantman’s deck was awash in blue and silver, and he did not have to look far to find Prince Imrahil, who stood before the captain, regarding him dispassionately. The captain, who was being held by two of Erchirion’s brawnier Marines, was protesting volubly in Westron, and when he caught sight of Brand, those protests became even more desperate.

“He gave his word, the young lord did! That we should go free! Ask him! Ask him!”

The Prince turned to Brand, his keen grey eyes taking in the blood, the ordure-and the marks on his throat. “Are you all right?” he asked, his expression softening considerably.

“I am well enough, sir. And very glad to see you!”

“As we are glad to see you.” Imrahil smiled, then sobered. “What exactly did you promise this man, Brandmir?”

“That if he were to let you board him and he returned us safely to you, that you would let him go free this one day only. But that he must never return to Gondorian waters again, on pain of death.”

The Prince considered this for a moment, then nodded. “So be it. We will discuss the circumstances that forced you to make such a promise later.” He turned back to the captain then, and his voice was suddenly chill as the uttermost depths of the ocean. “Captain Tufayl, you are free to go-as soon as you tell me what happened to the others.”

“The others, my lord prince?”

“The other children you took five months ago. The ones that didn’t show up in Umbar.”

The captain, already pale, grew paler yet.

“Captain!” Imrahil snapped. “You’ve been discovered with Gondorian children in your hold. You can hardly be more incriminated by telling me where you sold the other ones! Or did you throttle them and throw them over the side as well, for fear of discovery?” The Prince’s face was pale now too, but not with fear. It was the face he had worn when hanging the pirates, and Tufayl knew death’s face when he saw it. He hastily stammered an answer.

“No, my lord, we did not! They were alive and well when we took them to the far southern ports and sold them. I swear by the Sacred Fire! They went onto a caravan bound for inner Khand.”

“Out of our reach then,” the Prince murmured softly, half to himself it seemed. Then he turned his terrible eyes onto the captain once more.

“Go free this day, Tufayl-but this one day only. The only reason you are still alive is because of Lord Brandmir, whose sworn word I will not violate. Were it up to me, you and your crew would be hanged to the man for your crimes and your ship and cargo seized here and now, without further trial. And should you ever enter Gondorian waters again, that is exactly what will happen to you! Your ship is known and it will be watched for! You are known and will be watched for! I would suggest you take up a more southerly trade route, captain. Very southerly, for you have tried my temper sorely and my wingspread is wider than you might think!”

The marines released the captain, who fell to his knees thanking Imrahil in a incoherent jumble of Haradric and Westron. The Prince, imperiously disdainful, turned his back on the man, preparing to go back to the ship. Andrahar handed Celeg to one of the marines, and automatically moved to cover him; then he got a good look at the marks on Brand’s throat in daylight for the first time and stopped.

“Who put those marks on you, Brandmir?” he asked, and the tone of his voice brought the Prince back around in a hurry.

“The man down in the hold.”

“The man you killed?” Surprise washed over Imrahil’s face.

“Yes. The captain ordered him to throttle us so they could dispose of us over the side before you caught up to them. The captain was at the top of the stairs, speaking in Haradric. He didn’t know that I knew what he was saying. When Nezam came down to kill us, I threw the piss-bucket in his face. He was wearing Father’s knife. He’d taken it from me when I was captured. I went for it and killed him with it.”

Andrahar’s expression changed then, to something Brand had never seen before and never wanted to see again. He wondered if it were the captain’s battle face. Three swift steps carried him to the captain, who saw him coming and cowered back. Andrahar stooped and seizing him by the throat, lifted him to his feet with just one hand.

Andrahar!” Imrahil’s voice cracked with command. “Brand has given his word!”

“I know!” Andrahar growled gutturally back. “And I will not foreswear his oath, nor usurp your justice, my lord prince! But I have oaths of my own to make here this day!” He stared into the cringing captain’s eyes for a long moment, his gloved hand tightening on the man’s throat. Tufayl’s face was panicked, his own hands scrabbling to loosen the remorseless grip.

“I know your name, Tufayl,” he hissed, utter, chill malevolence in his voice. “And you had better pray that we never meet again. For if we do, that will be your last day living, and it will be a very long day! I Andrahar, son of Adrahil, swear it by the Sacred Fire!” He released the captain, who slumped onto the deck looking absolutely terrified. The other members of the crew looked equally intimidated. Certainly none offered to go to the help of their commander. The children watched this exchange with wide eyes.

Andrahar spun on his heel. “Let us get off of this stinking barge!” he snapped.

“Indeed,” the Prince agreed. He smiled reassuringly down at the children. “Come, lads, lass, we’ll help you across the rail and onto the Foam-flyer.”

Eiliriel was looking up at Imrahil’s helmet with its inlaid coronet, her expression highly gratified. “See, Big Boy, he’s a king, isn’t he?”

“Actually, he’s a prince, Eiliriel.”

“Well, he’s smart enough to know he should wear his crown!”

“Oh yes. But only just barely,” the Prince informed her, the corner of his mouth twitching suspiciously. The men standing nearby who had heard the exchange laughed. The Marines who’d been holding Tufayl came forward and at Imrahil’s direction, took up Celeg and Eiliriel and bore them safely over the rails of the two ships onto Foam-flyer’s deck. Another one started forward to aid Tullus, but he shook his head. “I can manage,” he said, and did so, though his eyes grew even bigger as he looked up onto the quarterdeck and saw Erchirion standing there.

“Come, Brand, let us go home,” Imrahil said, and started to lay an arm about Brand’s shoulders, but he shrugged out from underneath it.

“I’m filthy, sir.” Part of him craved Imrahil’s embrace and part of him cringed at the idea of it. The courage or persistence, whatever it was that had driven him through the day’s events, was leaking out of him now like he was a leaky bucket. His knees were shaky and he felt twitchy and nervous. Once again, he wanted to throw up or weep or do both, but he was determined not to shame himself before the Prince’s men.

“That does not matter to me, Brand…but as you wish.” Brand could feel his great-uncle’s eyes intent upon him, but Imrahil kept his distance, though he was close enough to lend an arm should Brand require it. Brand turned and started towards Foam-flyer, hearing Andrahar giving crisp orders behind him, and managed to swing over the two lashed ship rails featly enough. He sighed in relief as his feet touched Foam-flyer’s silvery decking, for he was now on Dol Amroth territory once more. Up the deck a way, he spied Hethlin watching the merchant ship intently, her bow nocked but not drawn. She was very obviously on duty, her eyes roaming constantly, looking for any sort of trouble, so he did not hail her.

“What do you need, Brand?” his great-uncle was asking. That was a question that was both simple and impossible to answer, so Brand stuck to the simple.

“Could I…would it be possible for me to wash up, and change into some other clothes?” He wished fervently to be rid of the reek of blood and waste, and the lesser odors of the hold.

“Of course, lad.” Imrahil started to move off, but Brand halted him with a hand on his arm.

“Grandy, what you asked the captain…there have been others?”

Imrahil nodded. “Three boys vanished in Dol Amroth five months ago. We suspected that it might be slavers, but had no real proof. It was because of them that we suspected you might have been taken on board a ship. Now let me go see about that bath for you.” He went back towards the stern calling up to his second-born son, while Brand waited where he’d been left. The Marines and the small detachment of Swan Knights who’d accompanied Imrahil were already back on board, and the lines lashing the two vessels together were being cut.

“Are you truly all right, lad?” came Andrahar’s deep voice and Brand turned a little to see his guardian standing there, face grim.

“I am, sir.” A tentative hand was laid gently upon his shoulder, and Brand flinched away, as he had done with Imrahil moments before.

“Sorry, sir. I don’t like being touched right now.”

Alarm flared in Andrahar’s eyes. He started to say something, then thought better of it and nodded abruptly. “Very well then. No one shall lay a hand upon you without your leave.”

Up on the quarterdeck the Prince was talking with Erchirion. The captain came down to them and the Prince mounted the stairs in his place.

“Come, Brand,” Erchirion said, gesturing towards the door of his cabin. He looked at Andrahar and smiled reassuringly. “I’ll see to him, Uncle-he wants to wash up a bit.”

“Of course, ‘Chiron.” Andrahar nodded once more; then, after a last concerned look at Brand, he moved up the deck.

“What about the ship, ‘Chiron? Don’t you need to be sailing her right now?” Brand looked about the bustling sailors as Foam-flyer began to pull away from the Haradrim ship and make the turn back towards Dol Amroth. To his surprise, it was Imrahil’s voice calling the orders.

“Father’s been itching to take her helm since he came on board. He hasn’t had a chance to go to sea in the last two or three years, and he misses it. He’ll manage well enough.”

Belatedly remembering that along with being a Swan Knight, Imrahil had also captained a warship in his youth, Brand raised no further protests and followed his cousin into Erchirion’s cabin.

The room was a spartan one, though attractive. Sunlight streamed in through the beveled glass of the window, which laid spots of color upon the floor. There was a map table, a small desk with a cunning lamp over it, some chairs, a washstand and Erchirion’s bunk and sea-chest. He strode to the sea-chest, opened it and began removing clothing.

“Basin’s over there, if you need to retch,” he said off-handedly, pointing to the washstand and tossing a handful of handkerchiefs onto the bed before digging out a shirt and breeches and smalls.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Father said you killed a man over there. I wept and threw up when I killed my first, so I thought you might want to be prepared.”

“You did?”

“I certainly did, and I was a whole two years older than you are! It happens, Brand-there’s no shame in it. I’d be a lot more worried if you didn’t feel bad about killing him.” He dug for some stockings and added them to the pile, then brought forth a towel and washcloth and some soap. “You’re going to sag and bag a bit here and there, but that can’t be helped. At least you have a belt.”

“So long as I’m clean!” Brand said fervently, and Erchirion grinned.

“We’ve civilized you right well, haven’t we? I quite enjoyed it, by the way-sailing to the rescue of my poor oppressed cousin, only to find you’d gotten loose, killed one of the villains and were threatening to roast the rest of them! That captain couldn’t wait to be rid of you!”

“He certainly made an effort to be rid of me.” Contemplating his close brush with death, Brand found that he now felt mostly numb when he thought about it. He had fully expected earlier to vomit or break out in tears, but it wasn’t happening now, and that might have been at least in part because of Erchirion’s response. Erchirion considered himself the least glib and sensitive of Imrahil’s three socially adept children (no one considered Amrothos to be socially adept), but his brisk, matter-of-fact attitude sat very well with Brand at present, and was actually calming him. The obvious concern expressed by the Prince and Andrahar had felt almost oppressive.

“Though it may not seem that way to you now, Captain Tufayl will be punished for taking you,” his cousin declared. “You didn’t make such a bad bargain, Brand. The man will never be able to trade in Gondor again. And he might not even be able to trade in Harad! If I know Father, he’ll be bending the ear of the Haradrim ambassador as soon as he gets to Minas Tirith. The Haradrim will not be pleased to find out that one of their merchant captains has been kidnapping Gondorian children, including a member of the royal houses of Ithilien and Dol Amroth, and selling them south in direct violation of our laws!”

“What will they do?”

“I don’t know. Andrahar might make a better guess at that. But I do know they’re not eager to give Aragorn any excuse to come down there again, given what happened the last time he made port there!” Brand, who had heard the tale of Thorongil at Umbar, smiled despite himself.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of a sailor carrying a pot of hot water. Erchirion directed the filling of the washbasin, then dismissed the man.

“There you go, Brand, wash up! Don’t worry about the children-there are plenty out there who will jump at the chance to take care of them. Take as much time as you need-get some rest, would be my suggestion. You look absolutely whipped.”

“Thank you, ‘Chiron.”

“Don’t mention it.” With one last reassuring smile, Erchirion departed, closing the door behind him. Brand shrugged out of his shirt, and moving to the washstand, set to as best he could. There was no way to wash his hair, so he settled for sponging it with soapy water on the places he could find where it had been soiled, then sponging it once more with clean water. His hands and face received the most attention, but there was enough hot water remaining to achieve a thorough cat bath for his whole body, and he relaxed as the smell of soap replaced the prison-like odor of the merchant ship’s hold.

Erchirion’s clothes had been laid away with some pleasant smelling herbs in his sea chest, and Brand rolled his soiled ones up in a ball and donned the clean ones most gratefully. The breeches needed belting and the shirt and stockings were a bit baggy, but it hardly mattered. Once clean, he settled himself upon the bunk and waited almost expectantly for the tears to finally come, but they still did not. Even though the day was a pleasant one, he felt oddly chilled and an overwhelming desire for sleep was coming over him, so remembering Erchirion’s suggestion he crawled under the covers of the captain’s bed. It was reasonably soft, the sheets smelling of the same herbal blend the Erchirion’s clothes did. He laid his head upon the pillow. I’m safe now, came the welcome thought and almost immediately, sleep found him. He did not dream.

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