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8
"Was ever a prince so ill-used?"

The night before the departure for Minas Tirith Brand sat bolt upright in bed, his heart pounding. He waited for the sound of a door opening, for Andrahar’s deep voice to ask if he were all right, but no one came. At first he thought it was because he’d not cried out, but after a minute or two he realized it was because he was in his room at the palace, rather than Andrahar’s house. He had been taken directly there after the Foam-flyer’s return, and some brawny esquires had delivered the rest of his things from his old room.

The rooms were farther apart here, and the walls thicker. There was no one who would hear his nightmares, either to object to them or offer him comfort.

“It might be better for both of us if there is a bit more distance between us.” With his usual efficiency, Andrahar had wasted no time achieving that distance. As Commander and Armsmaster, he had launched immediately back into a very hectic schedule as soon as he had returned from the Foam-flyer. Ultimate responsibility for both the preparations for the army traveling out and the education of the esquires remaining behind lay with him. The only time Brand saw him was at meals, and not often even then. And when he did see him, Andrahar had nothing to say to him, other than a civil acknowledgement. The distance between them was unmistakable to the rest of the family, though thus far they seemed reluctant to interfere or comment, probably because of Andrahar’s eternal reticence about his personal life.

But Brand missed the Captain, missed their evening conversations, the occasional hug or ruffle of hair, the genuinely warm and pleasant smile he had come to realize over time was something that Andrahar reserved exclusively for the people he loved. There had been no fatherly affection in his life before Andrahar had taken him in, and over the last two years he had grown accustomed to it, blossoming much like a drought-withered plant after spring rain. So he was very dismayed and not a little hurt that Andrahar had been able to set him aside with such apparent ease. That innermost, insecure part of him, scarred by years of trying to win Jacyn’s regard, was all too quick to both wail in dismay and turn away in anger.

Do I mean so little to him after all? it cried. Brand’s more sensible self realized that was not the case at all, that while he himself had been shocked by Andrahar’s revelation, Andrahar had in turn been wounded by Brand’s reluctance to accept him as a lover of men and as Boromir’s lover. And when wounded and thereby weakened, the Captain’s instinct would be to make a strategic withdrawal and go on the defensive. Brand understood this, but he still had no idea about how to mend matters between the two of them. And the dream that had awakened him had not helped.

Reaching over to his beside table, he poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher that stood there, and sat sipping it as he endeavored to collect himself.

This had not been the wave dream. Nor had it been another visitation from his father. No, this was something very different, a mélange of kaleidoscopic images, all depicting war in its most awful reality. Swarthy, stocky, armored men wielding great axes fighting Dwarves and Elves and Men, some in the arms of Gondor and Rohan and Dol Amroth. Flights of arrows hissing through the air. Warriors of both sides falling, hideously maimed and dying. The Prince’s beautiful stallion going down under the axes, the Captain and Lady Hethlin sliding from their mounts to cover him, then all of them being obscured in a sea of bloody axes rising and falling, rising and falling. And behind and above it all, a single mountain rising lonely and majestic above a plain.

Shaken, Brand shivered. Surely it was just a nightmare! That has to be all it was. It felt different than when Father visited me. He was having trouble convincing himself, and after a moment decided that he would not be able to get back to sleep, at least not immediately. The bell pull was close to the bed and he contemplated using it for a moment, to ask for some warm milk and perhaps something to eat, to help him go back to sleep. But it was the middle of the night. Brand, who had served others before coming to Dol Amroth and (aside from having meals prepared for him) had taken care of himself while in Andrahar’s house, had never become accustomed to the idea that he had the right to be waited on.

So he got up, threw his robe and slippers on, and slipped out into the hall, having decided to go down to the kitchens, which never slept, and find a bite to eat. But on the way down through the castle, he passed by the door of the library, which was ajar, and noticed a dim light within. Curious, he stuck his head in.

The lamps in the room were unlit. The light was from a single candle, which burned on the desk and the moonlight that poured through the open window. A dark, robed figure stood before the window looking out. Hearing Brand, it turned its head.

“Who’s there?” came Prince Imrahil’s voice a bit sharply.

“’Tis I, Grandy.”

“Brand? What are you doing up at this hour, lad?” All sharpness gone, the voice radiated concern. “We have a long ride to make tomorrow, you know.”

Brand stepped into the room. “I know, sir, but I had a bad dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. Couldn’t you sleep?”

Imrahil gestured him closer. “I suppose I should have, but Ithil on the Sea was too luring.”

Joining his kinsman at the window, Brand looked out. The moon was indeed riding high in the heavens, its light silvering the buildings of the town spread out on the hill below and the waves beyond. “It is very beautiful.”

The Prince smiled at him. It was an uncharacteristically melancholy smile. “Do you know, this will be the farthest I have ever been from the Sea? Further even than Lorien. Though Aragorn tells me that Dale is close to a very large lake-perhaps there will be swans.”

Stricken by the sadness in his great-uncle’s voice, Brand asked, “Must you go then, sir, if you don’t wish to? Surely you have done enough already? What with the war and all?”

Imrahil ran a hand through his hair. “And who would you send in my place? Elphir, who did as much as I and has another child coming soon? Faramir, who did as much as I and has a new baby? Aragorn has done more than anyone, and he is going and I wish that he were not, for he won’t get any babies of his own hundreds of leagues away from the Queen! I would very much like to stay, Brand-but the King requires a second in command, and of us all, I am the most experienced. And the most unencumbered.” There was a slightly bitter tone to that last. Brand, who over the last two years had come to know his great-uncle rather well, cast his eyes over his shoulder and spied the brandy bottle and glass on the library table. The Prince’s eyes followed his glance, and he smiled wryly.

“Ah. I am discovered.”

Daringly, Brand said, “Lady Hethlin does truly like you, sir. I’ve heard her say so.” Imrahil’s elegant brow arched up.

“I have never questioned Lady Hethlin’s friendship, Brandmir.” He sighed and turned back to the window for a moment; then, remembering what Brand had said earlier, asked, “You said that you had a bad dream? Do you want to talk about it?”

Brand, remembering the disastrous images in his dream, did not immediately respond. Imrahil, noticing this, focused his attention back upon his great-nephew. “Brandmir? Did you dream of the ship?”

“No, sir.” Slowly and with great reluctance, Brand explained. “It was a battle with Easterlings. I guess they were Easterlings-they had axes. And there was this big mountain all by itself. Your horse…got hit and you went down with it. The Captain and Lady Hethlin got off their horses too, to help you. It looked as if you were all…” he stopped, unable to continue or to meet the Prince’s eyes.

“I see.” There was a momentary silence. Then, briskly- “I hope that you will not be offended if I do not consider myself a doomed man because of your dream, Brand.” Brand did look up at that. Imrahil’s expression held no fear or dismay, only compassion. “A bad dream is not always a message direct from the Valar to the royal house of Dol Amroth, lad. Sometimes, it’s just a bad dream.”

“How do you know?”

“Most of the time you do not. Which is why those people who know of the dreaming ‘gift’ and think of it as such are fools.”

“But I saw everything so clearly. The mountain and the Easterlings and all. How did I know what they looked like if I‘d never been there?”

“Because you’ve been sitting at the dinner table for a couple of months now, listening to us talk about the war and the Easterlings and how they fight. We’ve mentioned the Lonely Mountain more than once. The very name implies a solitary mountain-’tis no wonder you would dream of one. As for the Easterlings-I don’t know how you imagined them, but they might actually not look at all like what you dreamed, aside from the axes-which we spoke of many times.”

This seemed very sensible. Brand relaxed, feeling a tension he hadn’t known existed slide away. The Prince’s arm rose, slipped about his shoulders a bit hesitantly; then, feeling no resistance, drew him close. “I think your dream wasn’t prophecy, Brand, but worry about us going off to war. It is really quite understandable.”

Brand rested his head upon Imrahil’s silk-clad shoulder for a moment, feeling the warmth of his great-uncle’s skin through the thin fabric. “Amrothos is going with you, and he is not a warrior. Mightn’t I as well?”

Long fingers stroked his hair gently. “No, lad. I want you here, safe.”

“’Twas not so safe here as all that but a few days ago.”

Imrahil acknowledged the hit with a wince. “You make a valid point. But ‘Rothos is of age, and he very much wants to meet the Dwarves and talk to their craftsmen and artificers. You are not. And there are more perils to war than the actual battles. We are marching north into the teeth of Winter. Which would not be my choice or Aragorn’s, but we have little choice, given when the summons reached us. You don’t march an army out on a moment’s notice. It will be Spring before we actually see battle, I suspect, but in the meantime, we are going to have to winter over. We may very well lose men to cold and sickness. I do not want you to be among them.”

Brand gave him an answering squeeze, then stepped back.

“But you and Lady Hethlin and the Captain are all going, sir. I will be alone here.”

Once again the eyebrow flew up. “’Alone?’ Are your cousins not to your liking then?”

Brand bowed his head. “I like Cousin Elphir very much, sir, and Cousin Erchirion too-though ‘Chiron is often away. But…”

“…But you’ve grown closer to me and to Lady Hethlin and to Andrahar. And even ‘Rothos. It must seem as if it is going to be very lonely here.”

Nodding in relief, Brand said, “That’s it exactly, sir.”

“You need not stay here then, lad, while we are gone. Your uncle would doubtless be glad to have you with him.”

“I had considered that, sir. No offense to Cousin Elphir.”

“I am sure that Elphir would understand. We are but your cousins when all is said and done. Hardly the same as your uncle. And now that you and Andra have parted company, I can see why the idea of living with Faramir would appeal to you. Would you like me to speak to him on your behalf?”

A swift shake of the head. “That won’t be necessary, sir. I don’t mind speaking to Uncle Faramir myself. We get along pretty well.”

“Faramir is a most agreeable sort,” the Prince agreed. He spent a moment in what looked to be an inner debate with himself, then asked, in a much more careful tone of voice, “Is there something you would like me to say to Andra then?”

Brand felt a cold lump congeal in the pit of his stomach. “No, thank you,” he said softly. “I don’t know what I would have you say.”

Imrahil accepted this with a nod, though he looked disappointed for a moment. “Well, if you ever do need my advice or assistance in the matter, I am here.” His head tilted slightly, and he gave Brand a smile. “Do you know what I think?” he asked in a determinedly cheerful tone, “ I think you need to go back to bed, and it won’t happen without something in your stomach. Shall we go to the kitchens?”

“The kitchens were where I was going when I found you, sir,” Brand admitted. The Prince clapped his shoulder gently.

“Sensible lad. Take up that candle, will you?”

Brand did as he was bidden, and the two of them set off towards the kitchens. Along the way, he blew it out, for the hall lamps rendered it unnecessary. The light of those lamps showed him that his usually sartorially accomplished kinsman was wearing nothing but the silk robe, which in the light was revealed to be a gorgeous creation patterned in blue and grey waves, over a pair of breeches and a pair of slippers, his hair falling haphazardly upon his shoulders. Brand had never seen Imrahil in such a disheveled state before, and was still trying to recover from the shock when they arrived at what was arguably Dol Amroth’s heart.

Lights were ablaze in the kitchen and though all the windows were thrown wide, it was very warm. But just to walk in was to start one’s mouth watering, for the early morning baking was in progress. Upon Imrahil’s entrance, all activity stopped and the staff turned and bowed to a man, but he gestured them back to work with a casual wave.

“Some milk and some of your fresh-baked for the lad here, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Gaelwyn, the chief cook’s wife, was overseeing the baking, and she gave some quick orders to a couple of the kitchen maids. Imrahil guided Brand over to a table by the window where they were out of the way and they seated themselves, Brand across from his uncle. In short order the maids returned with two mugs of cool milk, plates, a loaf still hot from the oven and a small crock of butter with a knife. The Prince turned and looked at Gaelwyn.

“Just the boy, I said, Mistress.” The baker put her hands on her narrow hips and frowned.

“You’re never up this late unless you’re drinking, Your Highness, and you might think brandy is mother’s milk the way you swig it down, but I’ll warrant your stomach doesn’t! Eat something!”

The Prince’s eyebrow winged upward yet again and he stared at his recalcitrant servant for a moment. She was unimpressed, holding his gaze meaningfully and without effort. After a moment, he surrendered, turning back to the food. Tearing the end of the loaf off, he buttered it and took a bite, washing it down with some milk. Turning back around, he said, “There. Are you happy now?”

“It’s a start,” she snorted, and returned to her work. Imrahil looked at Brand, who had been watching this whole exchange with wide eyes.

“You see how I am served? And under my own roof! Was ever a prince so ill-used?”

Brand, who had seen the concern in Gaelwyn’s eyes, and the sad glances from the kitchen help behind Imrahil’s back, thought he was actually very well used. And well loved. They don’t want him to leave. They’re worried about him. Aloud, he said demurely, “It truly is a pity, sir.”

“Scamp! You are supposed to be my ally, you know.” Brand nodded, busily buttering his own piece of the loaf. A smile of pure pleasure came over his face as he bit into the hot, fragrant bread and Imrahil, watching him, smiled as well. The next few minutes were spent without speech, for the Prince, once forced to it, discovered he did have an appetite after all, and the two of them devoured the excellent bread with gusto.

“Sir, what is that scar?” Brand asked eventually, for he had noticed, when the Prince’s robe gaped a bit as he was reaching for bread or butter, that there was a white scar high upon his chest, below the collarbone.

“This?” Imrahil traced the silvery mark with a finger. Brand nodded.

“It is a lesson, lad.”

“What sort of lesson?”

“That charisma can only carry a commander so far. That sometimes it’s helpful to actually have a plan. And to know your limits.”

“Is there a story that goes with the lesson?”

“But of course,” the Prince replied dryly, and needing no other invitation, launched into the tale. “When I was a young man, I went to sea, and eventually I got a ship of my own, which I named Olwen after my mother, who had died a few years before. I fancied myself quite the corsair’s bane, let me tell you! Of course Andra went with me, even though he hates the Sea, and he actually became rather good at boarding actions. We began to make a name for ourselves.” He paused to take a drink of his milk, then continued.

“One day, we encountered a Corsair ship twice Olwen’s size, and with probably three times my crew. Something had been preying upon our merchant ships in the area, and I suspected this vessel was the culprit. Andra counseled that we mark her position and try to find another of our ships in the area to join us, hoping that we could find the Corsair once again when we had done so. But I was determined not to let her get away, and over-ruled him. Three-to-one odds didn’t seem so bad to a hot-head captain wanting to bolster his reputation. After all, everyone knew that Gondorian soldiers and sailors and marines were superior.” Another pause, as some bread was consumed.

“We attacked the Corsair vessel straight on. I was over the rail first, and Andra was right at my side. It was the most fiercely fought action I had ever been in, and a great many of my men fell. Have you ever seen the scar on Andra’s leg?”

“No sir. He’s always very particular about taking his baths and such in private.”

“The Haradrim are more body modest than we are. In any event, that is the worst wound he has ever taken, and it happened that day. He was wounded by the Corsair captain himself but being Andra, he never faltered and kept fighting-until the moment he fainted onto the deck from loss of blood. I thought that he was dead.” The Prince’s fingers curled around his cup, stroking it, and he stared down at it reflectively.

“I think perhaps that I might have gone battle-mad then. I don’t remember any of the fight after that, you see. I took this wound then, and it was a fairly serious one, but I didn’t feel it and it didn‘t slow me down much-until after the battle. The next thing I remember is my first mate crying to me to put up, that we’d won the day and they wanted to surrender. So I had my glorious victory. There was even a song or two written about it. But it cost me half my crew, and I’ll owe the shades of each of those men an apology when I die. I should have been more careful with their lives.”

“Father said something about that to me when he visited,” Brandmir said, lowering his voice and with one eye upon the kitchen staff to make sure none were near. “That soldiers didn’t care who their commander slept with so long as he didn’t spend their lives foolishly.”

“There’s some truth to that. And it is true as well that your father was careful of his men, though I think your Uncle Faramir was even more so. Although that might not be entirely fair to Boromir-Faramir was fighting a different sort of war.” The Prince drained his cup, then gave his great-nephew a penetrating look. “You’ve done the first hard thing, Brand-you’ve killed. The next hard thing is to be a commander and spend other men’s lives.”

The melancholy was back, it seemed. Brand was thinking about how best to respond when there came a sudden raucous confusion of young men’s voices at the door to the kitchen.

“Go on, oh princess of packers! You ask! They like you in there!”

“They would like you as well, Ciryandil, if you’d spent as much time at kitchen duty as I have!” The voice was Lady Hethlin’s. Brand cast a look at his great-uncle, who had started slightly when he heard her and was staring again into his now-empty cup most intently, fingers stroking the outside. “Mistress Gaelwyn, might we have a bite to eat? We’ve been loading wagons all night.”

“Hmmph!” the baker snorted. “Have we not enough to do preparing the regular meals without you bottomless pits showing up in here at all hours?” A chorus of pleas arose, and she continued more softly, “But far be it from me to deprive warriors going off to war. It just so happens I have extra bread coming out of the oven. A little night bird told me I might be seeing you lot.” Another chorus arose, this time of cheers. “Here, I’ll give you trays with butter and cider. Take them to your dining room.”

“Thank you, Mistress Gaelwyn,” Hethlin said, her fellow esquires chiming in. “I’ll warn you, Ragnor’s squad is probably right behind us. He was finishing up when we left.”

“We were the first done that the Captain cleared!” someone commented proudly.

“That’s because you lucky lot and Ragnor’s squad were captained by people who used to be in the foot,” the former Ranger declared. “Nothing like carrying all of your possessions on your back day after day to teach you how to pack.”

“Unlike Súrion’s squad,” someone else said, gloating. “They’ll probably be re-packing their wagon until dawn. The Captain was tearing strips off them when we left.”

Kitchen maids were scuttling, loading trays with hot, fresh loaves and dishes of butter and pitchers of cider. The esquires were milling about, laughing and joking at the kitchen entrance. Brand took another look at his now silent kinsman, then suddenly stood up and waved a hand.

“Lady Hethlin! Over here!”

Brandmir? Whatever are you doing up at this hour?” came her response.

Brandmir! Whatever do you think you are doing?” Imrahil hissed softly. His back was to the esquires, so they were unaware as yet that their lord was among them.

“Oho! The princess has an admirer!” “Hethlin, your boyfriend is calling to you!” “Isn’t young love wonderful?” the esquires chorused.

“Oh sod off, you sons of sea buzzards!” she muttered, and they laughed. Picking up a mug and a piece of bread, she came over to the table. As she came around to Brand’s side she noticed that it was the Prince who was seated there and started to stiffen to attention, but Imrahil spoke, soft and swift.

“Just sit, Hethlin. I don’t want any fuss.” She did as bidden, with enough force to almost slop cider from her mug. The Prince eyed her curiously.

“Who did you think was sitting here?”

“I couldn’t tell, sir. Master Cuilast perhaps, since Brand was up. I thought he might have gone to him to get a sleeping draught or something.”

“I’m a little heavier than Cuilast.”

“It was across the room, my lord. And in that robe, it’s hard to tell.” Hethlin’s eyes traveled down to where the Imrahil’s bare chest and throat showed through the robe, and her cheeks grew pink, the scar on the right one showing whitely through the blush. Brand looked from her to his great-uncle, pleased to find that the Prince’s air of melancholy seemed to have vanished, and there was an amused glint in his eyes.

“How do you feel about your final tests?” he asked casually. “As you know, we’ll be testing in Minas Tirith this year. Do you think you are ready?”

Buttering her bread, she nodded. “As ready as I can be. Whether that is enough or not…we’ll just have to see.”

“I have stayed well out of it, Hethlin. And I won’t be among the judges this year, though I usually do have a say in such things. If Andrahar gives you that belt, you needn’t ever worry that you didn’t win it on your own merits.”

“Thank you, sir. I know that my training has inconvenienced you and I am sorry for that.”

“Oh, I think the end result will be worth any minor inconvenience,” Imrahil said, grinning boyishly. Hethlin, her head bent over her bread, glanced up at him once more, and once more her eyes played over that bare chest. The pink on her cheeks deepened, and the amused glint in Imrahil’s eyes deepened to something warmer. The Prince straightened in his seat a little, the grin went from boyish to downright piratical and Brand was put in mind of nothing so much as a black swan on a river, arching his neck and displaying for his chosen mate.

Three has just become a crowd! he thought to himself, amused. Aloud he said, “I think I could sleep now, Grandy. That bread was just the thing! Good night, sir. Good night, Lady Hethlin.” Scrambling out of his seat, he fled swiftly so that his great-uncle could not think of a reason to call him back.

But Imrahil did not attempt to do so. “Sleep well this time, Brandmir!” he called, a hint of laughter in his voice.

“Brand? Good night!” came Hethlin’s almost panicky call as he left, and Brand chuckled to himself.

His bed was most welcoming when he returned, and he was able to go right to sleep. He suffered no more troubling dreams, and the call to rise and prepare to ride came all too soon.

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