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1
The Return

Author's Note: Once again, many thanks to Altariel and Isabeau for 1) letting me play in their Tolkien sandbox, and 2) their patient betaing of multiple chapter drafts.

This story takes as its starting point the events of "Kin-strife." But it is precisely the contrast between the relationship of Andrahar and Peloren in "Kin-strife" and their relationship in "Noble Jewel" that made me wonder: just how did these two ever become friends and colleagues after Peloren helped Valyon beat Andrahar bloody in an ugly, racist attack?

Here follows my attempt at an answer.


~~~

Summer Solstice 2975

The castle courtyard was bright with midmorning sunshine, and one could already feel the day's heat drawing on. Even Dol Amroth had its scorching summer days, though with luck, the wind would pick up in the afternoon. The two young men in the uniforms of Dol Amroth's infantry certainly hoped so, for though they had the morning free, they would take their turn on guard duty at noon before being let off to join their new company.

Or rather, rejoin it. Peloren and Elethil each had a small trunk—esquires were not permitted much in the way of worldly possessions, at least not while they stayed in what was affectionately called the "Fledglings' Wing"—and knowing they would have no time before the evening ceremony, had decided they ought to take advantage of their free time to settle in. They had asked and received permission to do so from Armsmaster Ornendil and from Captain Valandil the morning before, and by that evening, word had been sent that they were to present themselves before noon the next day to the Armsmaster for their new room assignments.

"Good luck, lads," Sergeant Ambraith had said, when they had been about to leave. The sergeant of the Fifth Company of Dol Amroth's infantry had appeared in their barracks unexpectedly, allegedly to make a spot inspection.

"The Valar only know what some lads get up to on summer holidays—the Valar and I, that is," he had amended, his eyes—one blue, one brown, and both unsettlingly intense—sweeping the room. And between the Valar and Ambraith, one might be wiser to risk the Valar's wrath, for the Valar were a more remote court. Ambraith, whose uncanny ability to spot trouble brewing had undoubtedly led to their being assigned to the Fifth Company, had watched Peloren and Elethil like a hawk ever since their arrival. He had been an unrelentingly demanding taskmaster, and only memory of Ornendil's tender mercies and a determination that the Prince's clemency should not be for nothing had enabled them to bear up to it.

And they had—for one whole year, they had endured the barracks and the discipline of the infantry companies, and in point of fact, had grown to appreciate the footmen far more than they might have otherwise. Ambraith had had much to do with that newfound appreciation, to say nothing of the discipline, and so Peloren and Elethil had risen and saluted, thanking him politely. Those odd eyes had settled then upon the two of them as they had straightened, and the sergeant had grunted.

"The Swan Knights always take a few from among our lads; I don't grudge it, so long as the lads in question remember where they came from," he said at length, giving them each a meaningful look. "However you got here, you're Fifth Company footmen now, so be sure you do us proud."

"Aye, sergeant!" they had chorused, and he had waved them away then.

Now, the two of them made their way across the courtyard and into the keep. None stopped them as they made a turn and headed for the Fledglings' Wing. No one seemed to be about.

"I suppose they are all gone to see the fair," Elethil said.

"Likely so," Peloren replied.

"I hope the Armsmaster hadn't planned anything," Elethil continued, anxiously.

Peloren sighed. "Let's just hurry, Elya," he murmured, lengthening his stride as he took the corner that led down to the Armsmaster's office and the esquires' quarters beyond.

As promised, the Armsmaster was in, and in uniform, though it was not dress livery, thankfully. Still, he was no less imposing than either of them remembered as he rose and stood gazing at them measuringly.

"Be seated," he said, after a moment, indicating the chairs before his desk. They set their trunks aside and did as they were bidden. Ornendil remained standing, however. "Before I send you to your quarters, I want a private word with you."

Elethil and Peloren glanced at each other, then back at Ornendil, and Peloren nodded. They had rather expected this. Not that Peloren had been looking for the information, precisely, but so far as he knew, no one had ever been expelled from the Swan Knights and made a return. Ever. Not since the company had been created. Which put them all, including the Armsmaster, in a rather singular situation.

No more singular than having one of the Haradrim wear the white belt, he reminded himself, and then sighed inwardly. At least Andrahar had already completed his training and would not be sharing close quarters with them. Rumor had it he had been sent south, the Valar knew where, with Lord Ecthelion's outland Captain Thorongil, and though Peloren mistrusted rumor, he could at least count upon being spared Andrahar's presence in Dol Amroth. But ruminations upon absent Haradrim could wait, for the Armsmaster had begun speaking.

"As you know, new esquires are inducted twice a year into the ranks, at Summer Solstice and at Yule. After some discussion, it has been decided that your names will be read off with the other candidates, and you will take your seats at the esquires' tables alongside them in the hall this evening. This should make it clear to all that you are a part of this company once more and in full. However," Ornendil continued, "since you are most recently come from the foot, that is how you will be named. When you finish your training a year from now and assuming you pass the trials, then you will be recognized by the titles you were born to, but not before then. Is this clear?"

In other words, they had been taken back, but the consequences of last year's folly would not simply be erased. Nor was there anything they could do about it, and so they simply nodded, and made the obligatory reply: "Yes, sir."

"Good. Now, in terms of more substantial matters than such formalities," Ornendil continued, his eyes narrowing as he regarded them. "I have spoken with the Captain and His Highness, and both stand firm in this: you have been given a second chance, which is unusual. There will not be a third. You will live by the code, or you will leave. Take one step beyond it, and that is the end. Come up too hard against it, and you will be sent home. No pranks. No mischief. You had better be bleeding or shut up in your room if curses or the like are coming from your lips. I expect you both to be a model of courtesy to your brothers—all of them, no matter what the circumstances. Do you understand this?"

The Armsmaster's light emphasis on the word 'brothers' could not be mistaken, and so they said again, "Yes, sir."

"If this is not acceptable to you, then I advise you to say so now, before you are bound by any oaths," Ornendil warned.

At this, Elethil shot Peloren an anxious look—Say something! he pleaded silently, and Peloren, who knew his friend suffered from his own perceived lack of eloquence, reached and laid a hand on the arm of his chair briefly, ere he said: "If I may speak, Armsmaster?"

Ornendil raised a brow, but he gestured gracefully for him to do so. "Please."

"Last summer, we were offered the chance to spend a year with the foot, in order to return later to the Swan Knights to try to complete our training. We accepted, for we desired above all to serve as knights. We know it will not be easy to prove ourselves—that it will be harder than it ever was before—but we are both determined that we shall, for our desire has not changed," Peloren said firmly, pausing a moment before he finished: "As knights, we would be bound to lay down our lives at our lord's command; surely, then, we shall not hesitate to be bound in lesser matters, sir."

The Armsmaster grunted, but Peloren thought he seemed pleased by this speech. "Very well, gentlemen. Peloren, you have been given the fifth room on the east side of the hall; Elethil, you will take the ninth, also on the east side. Go stow your gear and I shall leave you to your business until this evening."

They rose, bowed politely and murmured their thanks, then turned to retrieve their trunks. As they were about to leave, Ornendil called after them, "Gentlemen." Peloren and Elethil paused in the doorway, and despite his recent bold words, Peloren felt anxiety sweep through him. What more is there to say? he wondered. Ornendil merely eyed the pair of them, smiled slightly, and said:

"Welcome back."


They did as they were commanded. Peloren found his new room very little different from his old one: an esquire's narrow cot stood in one corner, a wash stand, bowl, and pitcher nigh at hand in the other, with a small mirror on the wall above. There was one chair and a small, plain writing desk with ink and pens aplenty stocked against need; against the desk, a small shelf for books sat. Finally, there was a small clothespress next to the door. Opening it, Peloren found someone had already placed the two uniforms allotted to esquires. The silver swan winked at him in the late light of the morning, and he laid a hesitant hand upon the folds of blue fabric, letting his fingertips brush the bold-blazoned emblem. Only for a moment, and then he shook himself and quickly began moving his spare shirts and other articles of clothing into the appropriate drawers.

Once he had finished with that chore, he deposited his comb and one or two other toiletries on the washstand. Then he returned to withdraw a small number of books from the trunk, which he began setting in the bookshelf. Mostly they were books of tactics and strategy, but there was a treatise on siege engines and the mathematical formulae that went with them, and which every esquire was supposed to read, memorize, and understand. There was one well-thumbed book devoted to the care and training of horses, and a small volume of Haradric poetry he had been working on in an effort to satisfy the demand that all knights should be able to read and write in two languages.

In this last item were stuffed a handful of letters from his family, which Peloren retrieved and replaced in the trunk. While he was forbidden any pranks or mischief, on pain of final exile, that did not mean others were so bound, and although he could justly complain to the Armsmaster or any of the sergeants of someone stealing such private correspondence or disturbing it, such complaints would hardly change the fact that it had been read. At least he could lock the trunk, whereas doors and clothespresses were another matter.

Once he had finished disposing of his few possessions, he glanced down at himself, at the tabard he wore: blue and white checks, with but a small, embroidered swan crest that sat like a badge on his left breast. One more shift, and he would put away the uniform of a footman for the last time, for whether he succeeded or failed in the coming two years, he would not serve with the Dol Amroth infantry again. His father had already declared, in no uncertain terms, that if he should not earn his white belt, he would come home and ride with Anfalas' levies, and Peloren winced at the memory of that Yuletide... 'conversation.' Time had not blunted his father's wrath appreciably, it seemed, and Peloren had caught the brunt of it almost immediately upon his return.

"You will come home if you do not succeed. For if you fail because of this stray Southron, I shall not waste any further training on you. For Valar's sake, Peloren, why did you not leave well enough alone?" his father had demanded, and given him a smack to the back of the head in his disgust, as he had done when Peloren had been a boy. It had been a long, unhappy holiday back at his family's holdings in Anfalas; by comparison, the barracks at Dol Amroth and Sergeant Ambraith's iron-fisted discipline had been a haven he had gladly returned to.

But now he was leaving that relative sanctuary for the chance to return to the good graces not only of his father, but of his fellows, to redeem his name among the Swan Knights. If they shall let me, he thought, and his brow creased with worry. Peloren was not so naïve as to think that all was forgiven. He knew as well as anyone the ways of putting someone in his place without attracting the opprobrium of officers and sergeants.

For that matter, he knew well that officers and sergeants to some degree were complicit in such informal ways of disciplining an errant soul—if they did not care to bring a man to the attention of the official machinery of justice within the body of knights, if they felt such would be more detrimental than helpful, they had only to let their displeasure be known and the esquires would follow their superiors in shunning the offender until wrongs were righted. And as for the form of that shunning… well, it was generally not as simple as merely ignoring the offender. Or as pacific.

The question was whether memory of his participation in Valyon's plot would arouse wrath or some lesser emotion; whether in any case that feeling, whatever it might be, had run off somewhat in their absence. Peloren did not imagine that the officers had forgotten—Ornendil had made it clear enough that he and Elethil would be watched carefully, and no doubt tested especially. How would the other esquires react to this? It is not as if Andrahar is so well-beloved, after all, he thought, and wondered how he felt about that. It was a question he had not been able to answer in all the time he had spent reflecting on the affair; perhaps he did not wish to, fearful of what the answer might be...

Enough of this! he admonished himself, with a shake of his head. You are due on rotation—it would hardly do to be late for your final shift. Stuffing the key to his trunk into his pocket, he went to collect Elethil, and the two of them made for their posts in the corridors leading up to the Great Hall.

Nevertheless, for all that he tried to put his worries aside, he found he could not keep his thoughts from wandering over the next few hours, and from Elethil's distracted expression, it seemed likely his friend also suffered from restless wondering. By the time they saluted their replacements and went to change into their esquire uniforms, Peloren's palms were sweaty and not just from the heat.

"Do you think it will be long before matters settle?" Elethil asked in an undertone, as the two of them, freshly scrubbed and clad in their livery as tradition demanded of those who had it, made their way to the Great Hall, which had filled with guests over the past hour.

"I do not know," Peloren replied, then shrugged. "Probably." Elethil grunted, and they spoke no more as they reached the hall and paused on the threshold, hesitating to join the merry-makers. However, even as they stood there, gazing uncertainly about, Ornendil, who, much to their surprise, was chatting quietly with Farodel, the company commander of the Fifth Company, spotted them.

"Peloren, Elethil," he beckoned to them, and they (somewhat reluctantly) approached. "'Tis good you arrived a little early. It appears you have a choice. Commander Farodel and some of the officers of the Fifth Company were invited to join us, and you may, if you like, sit with them until you are placed with the esquires. But you may also wish to sit with the representatives that the Lord of Anfalas sent, since he is your liegelord."

Representatives? Peloren followed Ornendil's glance, and saw a pair of men in Anfalas' livery some ways up the hall, both of them seeming rather subdued. That Golasgil's father had been wroth with Adrahil's decision to turn his son out of the Swan Knights had come as no surprise, but if he appeared still unwilling to forgive the 'slight' to his house, he was apparently wise enough not to wholly refuse the Prince's invitation. Undoubtedly, Peloren thought, if they chose to stand by their liegelord's men, neither he nor Elethil need fear that any opprobrium for their past actions would taint the dinner-time conversation, for Anfalas had been quick to defend his son's actions and demand Andrahar's dismissal as well. Still...

"If Commander Farodel is not adverse, I think I would like to stay with the Fifth Company for the time being," Peloren said, and Elethil nodded his agreement.

"I am not adverse," Farodel replied, seeming amused. "Join us, please. Ornendil, perhaps we could speak later of a joint exercise...?"

"Tomorrow afternoon?"

"That would be agreeable. Your office or mine?"

"Yours is somewhat closer to the field, and as you know, it is always a busy first week with new esquires," Ornendil replied. Farodel chuckled. Apparently, he did know, and Peloren sighed inwardly in anticipation of the painful exhaustion the next several days promised to bring.

Just then, however Adrahil entered, with Princess Olwen on his arm, and discussion ceased as all rose in the presence of their lord and lady. Pressing Farodel's arm, Ornendil made a hasty retreat to his own place, while Farodel touched Peloren's shoulder, and Elethil's, silently urging them to take their places at the table.

The Midsummer festival had not the solemnity of Yuletide, but it had its own order, which included the welcoming of guests. Nor was it simply a general speech the Prince was expected to give, but he and his lady went to each of the tables and stood at its head, there to recite the Canticle of the Sun in Yavanna's honor before bidding the occupants of the table to seat themselves and be welcome. When the Prince and Princess came to the table where the Fifth Company's men stood, Peloren bowed his head, as did all others, mouthing the familiar words to the short poem. When it was done, he looked up, just in time for Adrahil to say:

"In Harad, there is a tradition of holding every fifth year to be the year of wisdom—that is, as they say, the final element at the center of the worldly four, and for all our differences, it seems to me a goodly custom. So on this day, the very middle and navel of the fifth year of this decade, may Yavanna grant that the seeds of wisdom grow in each and all of us." The Prince paused, and his grey eyes swept over the faces of his guests. Peloren felt his breath catch, for it seemed to him that Adrahil's gaze lingered somewhat upon him and Elethil, ere he smiled, and said, "Be welcome in our home, gentlemen. Please, be seated."

"Quoting Haradric customs? That was not an accident!" Elethil leaned close to whisper, and Peloren shook his head minutely as Adrahil and Olwen at last came to the high table and welcomed their final guests, ere the servitors appeared and began laying out supper.

The royal house of Dol Amroth was renowned for the generosity of its tables, and this year did honor to that reputation. Despite a mounting nervousness, Peloren set to with a will on the exquisite and plentiful fare, he and Elethil both having the healthy appetites of active young men. The flow of conversation was pleasant, and stayed away from Swan Knights and any potentially embarrassing topics, for which the two soon-to-be esquires were grateful.

But eventually, as both hunger and fancy were sated, a bell rang, and Adrahil rose again, Ornendil and Valandil following suit.

"My lords and ladies," the Prince announced, as head turned toward him, "every year at this time, it is our very great pleasure and honor to make known to you the names of those who will undertake to become Swan Knights in the service of this kingdom. It is our hope that all those who stand before us today shall come eventually to attain the high station for which they aim, and uphold the long tradition of that company to safeguard Gondor's people in the trying times of strife and fear. But before they can take up that task, they have a long journey to make.

"Tonight, however," the Prince said, and flashed one of his brilliant smiles, "they will be asked to take but the first step: or rather, the first ten, so that they may join the ranks of their fellow esquires." Chuckles greeted this bit of wordplay, but Peloren swallowed hard against the sudden knot in his stomach, and Elethil's hands were white-knuckled as he clasped them in his lap. "Armsmaster?"

So it began: Ornendil produced a list from his scrip and began reading names. "Lord Angbor of Lamedon." With each name, the lad called forth would rise and make his way to stand before Valandil, who would present him then to the Prince.

"Lord Baragil of Morthond." Peloren watched as each young man knelt in turn and swore the oath that would bind him to obedience for the duration of his training.

"Lord Hengrist of Pinnath Gelin." Adrahil would raise him up then, kiss him on either cheek, and welcome him to the company before handing him off to Valandil once more, who would direct him to the table where the other esquires sat already, waiting to greet their new peers.

The list went on for a bit before "lord" dropped out of the litany and men from various infantry companies began to be called: men of no breeding, but whose courage and skill, and often, their proven battle-hardiness, were such as to bring them to the attention of the Swan Knights.

"Aldan of Dol Amroth, of the Third Company." Older by several years, often, than their noble brother-esquires, they nevertheless seemed more hesitant, as if all such rituals and attention were foreign to them—which, undoubtedly, they were.

"Elethil of Caldor, of the Fifth Company." Beside him, his friend rose and made his way forward, to all outward appearances the picture of composure in that moment. He knelt to Adrahil, swore his oath, was raised up, and received. Nothing wanting in that greeting, nor anything more to it than that: matter-of-fact, courteous, and without any fuss. It is not so bad then, Peloren thought, and then drew a deep breath, for he was next.

"Peloren of Hathwyn, of the Fifth Company." Striving to match Elethil for calm, he rose and wove through the tables until he stood before Valandil, who inclined his head politely and laid a hand on his shoulder as he turned slightly towards Adrahil.

"Prince Adrahil, may I present Peloren of Hathwyn?"

"My prince," Peloren murmured, and knelt.

"Are you prepared to renounce your allegiance to your lord, and to swear obedience to me and to the officers of my company, until such time as you have completed your training, Peloren?" Adrahil asked, and as he had three years ago, Peloren replied:

"I am."

"Very good. Then repeat after me..."

And Peloren obeyed, reciting the oath he had taken before: "I, Peloren son of Palavir, hereby bind myself to obey the commands of the Prince of Dol Amroth, and of all his company, above all other bonds of loyalty. The code of a knight of Dol Amroth I hold now to rule me, and I shall strive to be worthy of it, that I may one day be granted to call it my own."

Hands grasped his shoulders, braced him as he rose, and Adrahil and he exchanged the traditional kiss of lord and bondsman. But the Prince held him close a moment longer, long enough to whisper in his ear: "Well done, lad. Welcome home."

Then he was released and Valandil sent him to join the others. He of course sought out a seat near Elethil immediately, staring down at the table for a long moment ere he raised his eyes to gaze at the faces of the esquires, his brothers once more. Most of those who had entered with him had already gone on to claim their white belts, though there were a few who had been deemed promising enough to grant another year of study despite having been judged unready to face the final tests. But there were other familiar faces: all the lads who had come in a year or two behind him remained (save for a few, victims of the rare but inevitable training accident or else who had decided they could not complete the training).

A few smiles greeted him, and neighbors offered nods. But he could feel the discomfort, and there were several faces whose closed expression gave no sign of their feelings toward him, save that no one would be so cautious who had not something to hide.

The knot in his stomach tightened, and he glanced at Elethil, who met his eyes, and the thought passed clearly between them:

It is going to be a long year.

~~~

To be continued...


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