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3
Homecoming

It was a wet, windy evening as a naval ship flying the colors of Dol Amroth slowly slid into a berth at the great docks. She was a smaller vessel, the sort the Prince preferred for carrying messages at speed, her light frame and broad sails giving her the sea-legs to outrun the pirates that preyed upon merchants and even larger warships. Upon her prow, a dark-robed figure dressed in Haradric fashion that suggested a merchant of modest prosperity, leaned upon the railing, staring at the rain-hazy silhouettes of towers in the fast-fading light.

Home at last, Andrahar thought, through the stirring of ambivalent emotion. On the one hand, after a year abroad, in Minas Tirith and in Umbar, those towers were a welcome sight—more welcome, perhaps, than he had thought possible, particularly after so recent and prolonged a stay in his native land. On the other hand, the weather he could have done without. Several weeks of a southern winter had spoiled him for such cold, for although of necessity he had grown accustomed to it to a degree, he did not care for it, even if Dol Amroth's winters were far milder than Minas Tirith's.

And still they are too cold, he thought, sighing softly at the visceral memory of the heat off Hurrhabi's sun-baked streets. He had nearly forgotten what it was like to feel always warm enough.

His companion upon this journey, however, seemed to find the steady drizzle refreshing. Andrahar was aware of him a moment before Thorongil joined him, pushing his hood back as he breathed deeply. Like Andrahar, the captain was dressed in the manner of the Haradrim, though his outfit was that of a mercenary.

"The best disguise is often the one nearest to the truth," Thorongil had jested when they had settled on their respective roles. "A merchant and his guard-for-hire ought to do nicely."

And it had worked remarkably well on a number of levels, allowing Andrahar to move freely about the market spaces, whether in the old, elegant, wealthy quarters of the city or the rough-and-tumble dock districts he knew well from his ill-spent youth. With a mercenary at his side, none troubled them, and Thorongil's disguise afforded an excuse should he err in his speech, for not all mercenaries were Haradrim by birth. It had even allowed them to brave the naval offices and shipwrights, on the pretext of attempting to gain a military contract, which had proved useful. And Thorongil had proven himself a swift student of Harad's ways, seeming to disappear into his costume after but a few days.

Save on one point, that is, for unlike Andrahar, the captain had found the heat oppressive. "Even Gondor can be somewhat too warm for me at times," Thorongil had told him. "As cold as Dol Amroth is when compared to Harad, so cold is Eriador compared to Belfalas."

"Then remind me never to visit," Andrahar had replied, and got a chuckle for his cheek.

Now, though, the captain appeared quite happy enough with Gondor's grey skies and chill winds, and the rain apparently troubled him not at all. After a moment, Thorongil glanced sideways at him, and quirked a brow. "Homesick?" he asked.

"Aye. I mean, no, not for Harad," Andrahar hastily corrected, and gave the captain a bit of a narrow-eyed glare, as Thorongil grinned at him and clapped him on the shoulder.

"I know where your loyalties lie, never fear. But we cannot help but miss the land that raised us," the captain replied, and from the slightly wistful tone to his voice, Andrahar guessed he was speaking from experience in that moment.

"I will miss the sun," Andrahar admitted after a moment. "And it was... pleasant... to hear Haradric again, and all the time." That had been unexpected, for he had been taught very young to speak Westron, and did not consider it any longer to be foreign to him. Indeed, he had only rarely had cause to find his second tongue strange to him in all the time he had been in Dol Amroth. Thus it had surprised him how good it had felt to sink into his mother-tongue again, to have no reason to speak anything but Haradric. It was as if a dam had been removed, or a light unshuttered; a strange, freeing feeling—relief? exultation?—it had been, though then as now, he found himself at a loss to describe it, though not for want of trying...

"It puts all in order again, does it not?" Thorongil said, smiling faintly. "Makes everything familiar, inside and out—suits your thoughts to feeling, and makes the world shine." Andrahar must have been gaping slightly at him, or else frowning in surprise to hear so glib a response to his unvoiced struggle, for the captain shrugged slightly, and explained, "I was raised to both Sindarin and Westron, but my people spoke the elven tongue, mostly. Even in Gondor, there are not many who speak it daily, but there are some. After all my time away, such company is, indeed... 'pleasant.'"

"Yes, it is," Andrahar agreed, a bit abruptly, for he was turning the captain's words over in his mind. Then: "I did not know that about you."

"One speaks as all others do in a strange land," Thorongil replied, then gripped the railing against the ship's slight shudder as the anchor struck shoals and the chain pulled taut. The sails had already gone down, and sailors began shouting, throwing ropes to the dock-workers, and some were bringing the gangplank. Thorongil, seeing this, gave Andrahar a nod, and said briskly, "Time to go."

In response, Andrahar leaned slightly to his left to grab his pack, and he slung it over his shoulder. Thorongil had his already upon his back, and so the two of them made their way over to have a word with the captain, ere they disembarked.

"As promised, Dol Amroth in a week's time," the man said.

"She is quite the swift one. Our thanks for the smooth journey, Captain," Thorongil replied.

"My pleasure. A merry Yule to you both," the other said, and then left them to the final leg of their journey. Waiting for them just beyond the docks was a carriage, whose driver wore Adrahil's livery, and who, after squinting at them a bit with a lantern, welcomed them back to Gondor, then said:

"The Prince sends word that he looks forward to dining with you both this evening. If you would, then...?" He held the door open, and the two travelers climbed obediently within.

It was a swift, silent journey up to the keep, for neither Thorongil nor Andrahar were the sort of men to make conversation to fill a silence, and so they each lapsed contentedly into their own thoughts for a time.

Will Imri be home for Yule? Or is he still with those confounded elves? Andrahar wondered, feeling a flash of searing indignation at the very thought of Gildor Inglorion, whose refusal even to consider allowing him to accompany Imrahil had earned Andrahar's undying enmity, never mind that his own lords had had other plans for him. It was one thing for Andrahar to bow to his sworn lord's will to part him for a time from Imrahil, whom he still considered his primary responsibility; or to bow to Imrahil himself, who had been strangely insistent upon Andrahar's participation, despite his obvious fears for his oath-brother's safety. But it was another matter entirely for some arrogant elven outsider to take it upon himself to banish him.

"Your presence would hamper matters," the Elf had said loftily, thereby adding outrage to injury.

But perhaps by now, Imrahil is free of them. I hope so, at least! Andrahar thought. If not, he supposed he would have to endure, and strive alone to settle at last into Dol Amroth's ranks. At least in the event that Imrahil were still among the Elves, he might attempt to do his settling without Princess Finduilas's well-intentioned if ultimately frustrating attention!

And I wonder what news might greet me on that front? he wondered. Had Finduilas acceded (he tried not to think of it as 'succumbing') to Lord Denethor's suit? Or had the man not even moved yet to ask her hand? It was probably unseemly for a junior knight to find that amount of gleeful scorn in contemplating that latter possibility... Yet another in the list of habits unbecoming a baseborn son, he thought, but could not bring himself to regret it.

Still, Andrahar determinedly thrust such speculation aside, for truly, it was not his business. The duties of a Swan Knight are, and that, my lad, ought to prove challenge enough for you, he berated himself.

For if he had been assigned to the Princess's escort, it had not been only the whim of Finduilas, to take her brother's 'waif' under her wing once Imrahil had been put to sea again, that had gained him that placement. The well-loved bastard son of a great lord survived by his ability to calculate, and there were any number of more qualified (and better-born) knights Finduilas's father might have given her who would have made matters somewhat less difficult with Lord Denethor. Adrahil's parting wish—"Come back to us a knight, Andrahar"—had made it only too clear: the Prince had been concerned to keep him out of the clutches of the Dol Amroth esquires awhile longer, until he had completed his training and could face them with a knighthood to stand upon.

And while it had taken longer than anticipated (and this at least was most definitely due to the Princess's whim), he could at last fulfill that command: this trip to Harad would see him finally leave the ranks of the knights-probationer. Though the mission had been bloodless where it mattered, they had encountered some difficulty on their journey when crossing the border out of Harondor one night, where a fight had ensued when they had been unable to convince the commander of the small, Haradric border patrol that they were not smugglers.

Not that their being smugglers had been so much the problem—there were always men on either side of the border who were willing to enrich themselves on such illicit trade, and of necessity, some of them were officers in the armies of either Harad or Gondor. The commander had clearly been one such. The problem had been that they had not been carrying anything he had been willing to accept as 'export tax.'

Undoubtedly it was a ploy the commander had used regularly with the lesser merchants (which was all Thorongil and Andrahar could afford to pretend to be): accuse them of smuggling, raise a fuss over the lack of suitable goods, threaten arrest and detention; then, when the 'smugglers' protested and actually began offering payment in a desperate effort to appease the commander and secure their release, switch sides, play the offended agent, and in the midst of it, have his guards seize and slay them. Goods could then be confiscated, witnesses silenced that might warn other traders, law-abiding or otherwise, to avoid his route, and a sorrowful report could be sent onward: merchant found slain, goods stolen. In point of fact, they would go into his own coffers, and perhaps be passed about his little company, all of it without being reported.

It was a good scheme, considered in a certain light. However, neither Andrahar nor Thorongil had harbored any desire to see it succeed. It had been a lucky thing the patrol had been so small, for it had meant that they had been able to take care of those in the commander's tent, where they had been brought for questioning (and their eventual, planned demise), in relative privacy, and with surprise on their side.

That had given them a precious few minutes to get out, to free a pair of horses and send them pounding off into the night, which had led half the patrol off to chase them down. The other half had all run to see what had become of the commander, and in the uproar and confusion, their would-be prey had slain another two guards on the quiet and untethered the rest of the horses. Choosing two for themselves, they had mounted up, and then Thorongil had cried out in a strange tongue, and instantly, the horses—all of them—had bolted, leaving the remainder of the patrol in utter confusion and without the means to follow them.

And so, thanks to that bit of bad business, Andrahar would return to Dol Amroth a full-fledged Swan Knight. And how will that play out in the ranks? he wondered.

"Andrahar?" The young knight blinked, shaking himself out of his contemplation to find Thorongil watching him. "Is everything well with you?"

"Of course, sir," Andrahar replied quickly.

"You seem rather pensive," the captain said.

"It took me some time to find my place here," Andrahar said after a moment's hesitation. "Now I have been gone a year and more—who knows how long it will take me to find it again?"

At that, the captain had grunted softly, but said no more, for the carriage was slowing. It came shortly to a halt, and almost immediately, the door was opened to reveal a page standing there, his hood drawn up against the rain.

"My lords," the boy said politely, waving them out. Andrahar deferred to Thorongil, then rose to follow him out. As he joined the captain in the courtyard of the keep, however, Thorongil laid a hand on his shoulder. And as he began towing him along toward the welcome light of the open door that promised warmth, he said quietly:

"I doubt me you shall have to find a place in Dol Amroth; rather, I think you will find one waiting for you," he said, even as they entered the hall and were hailed by another of Adrahil's servants.

It was a prophetic utterance, as matters turned out.


Andrahar had half expected that Adrahil would wish to hear the news as soon as possible, and so while he had bathed and dressed himself in the livery a page delivered, he had begun mentally to put together a brief report of their journey.

Perhaps, however, I ought to have started that task in the carriage, he thought, rather than spending that time on more trivial matters. For he was still debating whether to include certain points as he made his way toward the Prince's suite. At a certain moment, the click of his boot heels against the stone floor was joined by another set of footfalls, and then Thorongil appeared from around a corner, frowning as he struggled with a recalcitrant button on the cuff of his sleeve.

"Andra," he murmured, by way of somewhat preoccupied greeting.

"Captain." Then, slightly more hesitantly: "Should I...?" and he gestured vaguely at Thorongil's wrist.

"Please." They paused, Andrahar addressed himself to the offending article of clothing for a few moments, then gave the sleeve a final tug, testing the button. It held, and so he stepped back with a nod. "Thank you," Thorongil said, mouth quirking. "I do not see why Gondor insists on these sleeves—ties work well enough in Rohan!"

"What about the North?"

"Four layers of clothing against the wind will hide such telltales," the captain replied casually, though his eyes twinkled. Andrahar snorted and shook his head as they resumed walking, and he resumed his interrupted construction of a report...

"You still seem pensive," Thorongil commented. This time, Andrahar answered:

"I am trying to put our journey in some order, should the Prince ask about it."

"Ah." The young knight gave his erstwhile traveling companion a suspicious look.

"What?"

"Nothing. Let us not keep Prince Adrahil waiting." Andrahar gave him a suspicious look which was lost on the older man, who had lengthened his stride and so quickly outstripped Andrahar, who was obliged to trot a bit to draw even again.

Not that there seemed to have been any need to rush: upon their arrival, Adrahil rose, with Olwen on his arm, and two other blue-clad figures rose with them. Captain-Commander Valandil and Armsmaster Ornendil stood by silently as the Prince greeted his guests.

"We have wondered very often about you both since you left," Adrahil told them, clasping arms first with Thorongil, and then moving to Andrahar, who started to bow out of habit, but was prevented by the Prince's hands upon his arms. Straightening his shoulders slightly, the young Swan Knight lifted his chin, gazing up at the Prince, who smiled warmly back at him, and his grip tightened. "It was good to hear news at last that you were well," he said. Especially you, that grip conveyed, and Andrahar lowered his eyes slightly.

"I fear supper is not quite laid," Olwen said then, when she had made her greetings. "But perhaps," she suggested, glancing from Andrahar to Thorongil and then back again, "you could tell us something of your journey while we wait. I hope it was not too difficult."

And since the Princess was looking right at him, Andrahar replied, "It was not, your highnesss. Matters went very smoothly, in fact."

"Save for a bit of trouble with customs," Thorongil added then, and Olwen turned an inquisitive look upon him.

"Customs?" she asked.

"We had some difficulty with a Haradric border patrol," Andrahar explained quickly.

"At the crossings?" Adrahil was frowning.

"No, my lord prince, we had no trouble with the Poros garrison. 'Twas a little before that that we were picked up by the patrol to Harad side. It was a small company."

"Small or no, it might have gone ill with only two to face it," Valandil interjected. "It seems you were lucky."

"Indeed we were, sir," Thorongil responded. "We got out for the price of a white belt for this young man, if I am not mistaken," the captain continued, gesturing then to Andrahar, and four pairs of eyes swiveled to settle upon Andrahar with great interest. "A fair trade for all, I think," Thorongil concluded, returning a slight smile in response to Andrahar's slightly pained expression.

For Andrahar had come to learn in their time together that although Thorongil could be a sober, somber, even taciturn man, he did have a touch of what he could only call Rohirric lyricism to him. Any opportunity to tell a story was one he tended to exploit, sometimes more subtly, so that it was not until the last line that one realized what he did, other times more forthrightly so. It was a habit that occasionally reminded him of Imrahil, which ought to have pleased him, but for some reason, he took it less well from Thorongil. Particularly when he figured in one of the tellings.

As now! the Southron thought. He was no doubt planning this when we met in the hall! Perhaps it was because whenever Imrahil undertook to embellish some episode of his life—the Heir preferred to call it 'giving it its best face'—there was no question but that he would tell it from beginning to end, and the middle would be taken care of as well, no matter how exaggerated matters became. Whereas with Thorongil (in perhaps another hold over from his stay in Rohan), Andrahar might at any moment be called upon to participate. Nor could he ever be certain the man would not abandon him in the telling, leaving him laboring under the awkward obligation to match the cleverness of the opening chapter—an impossible task, he always felt.

Which, he suspected, was precisely what had just happened. Having set him up, the captain appeared ready to bow out and leave the rest to him. Moreover the Prince and Princess, and the Swan Knights' two most senior authorities were all gazing expectantly at him, and so with an inward sigh, he began to give the account of their little misadventure, after but a moment's hesitation falling back upon the far more dry and concise report he had already assembled in his mind.

Fortunately, his audience did not appear to be dismayed by this rather more pedantic style, and when he had finished the account, Adrahil and the officers of the Swan Knights exchanged pleased looks, while Olwen smiled at him. "A fair trade indeed," the Prince agreed after a moment, and glanced approvingly at Thorongil, who merely inclined his head. "Gondor owes you both thanks for good service—and Harad as well, if only she knew it."

At that moment, a servant poked his head in from the next room to announce that supper was laid, which pronouncement brought an end to the discussion for the time being. Adrahil and Olwen led their guests into the dining room and took up their places on the west side of the round table. The others fell in about them—Valandil upon Olwen's left, followed by Ornendil, then Andrahar, and finally Thorongil, who ended up in the guest's seat on Adrahil's right as the only guest not liege-bound to Dol Amroth.

Once the standing silence had been observed, they seated themselves, and as dishes were passed, conversation was continued. Much of it did center on the doings in Harad, and Andrahar endeavored to answer whatever questions were put to him, but otherwise was largely content to let Thorongil tell the tale: there was no contesting the fact that he made it more interesting than Andrahar could have.

Besides which, Andrahar found himself feeling a touch self-conscious, for about halfway through the meal, he noticed Ornendil and Valandil were watching him. It was discreet—a quietly scrutinizing look ever and anon that lasted just a little too long—yet it was somewhat disconcerting. Were they expecting him to speak more? Or was it some other matter? One pertaining to last summer? Plainly he could not simply turn to them and ask, and so, self-consciousness tending to irritate him if he dwelt upon it overmuch, he attended to his supper and tried to listen instead to the captain and ignore the furtive stares.

When at length the topic of their trip to Harad had been sufficiently discussed, Adrahil and Olwen, and also occasionally Valandil and Ornendil, told of events in Dol Amroth. Andrahar learned that Corsair raids had become more frequent in the late season this year, which had kept the navy and the Swan Knights busy. The doings of the court in response to such predations were lively, and it was then Andrahar learned that in fact, the Steward's Heir had finally made his move to ask for Finduilas's hand... an asking that had unfolded in a rather unintentionally comical manner.

Andrahar decided right then that he could, without reservation, forgive Finduilas every dull afternoon spent attending her on a shopping trip for the indelible image of Lord Denethor proposing marriage on a seasick stomach. And although it would not be proper to laugh too hard, perhaps, he could not help but notice he was not the only one laughing into his hand: Thorongil's eyes were bright, and his shoulders shaking a bit with the effort not to surrender to the fit.

But finally, as the discussion wended its way through Finduilas's impending marriage and the plans being made for that, Andrahar could no longer restrain the question that had plagued him since his arrival in Dol Amroth:

"My lord prince?" he asked, and Adrahil raised his brows questioningly. "What of Imrahil? Is he well?"

"We are expecting word from him shortly," Adrahil replied. "It ought to come in time for Yule."

Which was apparently all the answer he would get, and the young knight determinedly mastered his disappointment, nodding politely in thanks. Talk continued for another half hour or so before at last, the Prince and Princess, expressing their regrets, rose to retire. "For with the holiday upcoming, there is much that must be completed ere then. By all means, stay if you wish, and avail yourselves of the brandy," Adrahil invited. "Good night captains, Andrahar."

The guests rose, murmured their good nights, and waited until the royal couple had departed, before, on unspoken agreement, they began to say their farewells to each other. Nevertheless, given the looks he had been getting all evening, Andrahar was not wholly surprised when Ornendil touched his shoulder. "If you would, Andrahar, there is a matter we—" and here he gestured to Valandil "—would like to discuss with you. It should not take long."

"Of course, Armsmaster," Andrahar replied.

"Thank you. Good night, Captain Thorongil," Valandil said then, "I hope we shall be able to speak further before you leave."

"Alas, I fear shall be taking ship on the morrow for Minas Tirith," Thorongil replied. "Another time perhaps. Good night, gentlemen. Andrahar, it has been a pleasure and an honor. You have my very great thanks for all of your help, and should you come to Minas Tirith again, I hope we may continue our sparring matches." Andrahar bowed, got a smile for his courtesy, and with that, Thorongil departed, leaving the three Swan Knights alone.

"Come," Valandil said, and led the way out of the Prince's suite. Andrahar followed obediently, and at length, they arrived at Valandil's office, where two more Swan Knights stood waiting: Masters Théorwyn and Illian nodded gravely and murmured their greetings as the others approached. Valandil unlocked the door and ushered them all within; chairs were pulled up in a circle, and all seated themselves at the Captain's bidding. For Andrahar's part, curiosity and suspicion commingled, and were definitely more than just piqued, for what would the Captain and Masters of the Swan Knights want with him, that they would invite someone so junior as himself into what appeared to be a rather... grim... council?

"Thank you for joining us tonight, Andrahar," Valandil said. "I apologize for the late hour, but we wished to have this in order as soon as possible."

"What matter, sir, if I may ask?" Andrahar inquired cautiously.

"Ornendil?" Valandil glanced aside at his colleague, who took up the tale, though from his expression, it was not one he was pleased to tell.

"It concerns esquire training, at least in its form," the Armsmaster said, which was an odd turn of phrase, and Andrahar's brow creased as he puzzled over it a moment. "You must know your own skill as a swordsman, Andrahar: men who have a gift for something are very rarely unaware of it, particularly if that gift has been trained, as yours has. It has been apparent to all of us that you will be among the best in the land when it comes to blade-work—I certainly will not be teaching you much else, if anything. I do not have the means."

He paused a moment, and Andrahar inclined his head. "Thank you, sir. Though I hardly think I have mastered everything yet that you have taught."

"That may be so as regards the breadth of forms I have introduced you to and trained you in," Ornendil acknowledged. "But the mastery you desire in any one of them is one you shall have to reach on your own, or perhaps from further studying with your Captain Thorongil, who, if I am any judge, may be the only one in Gondor at this time who can truly teach you. For that reason, if you do desire to study with him, then in six months' time, I would support a petition to the Prince to transfer you back to Minas Tirith. Any and all of us here would do so."

There was a scattering of nods and murmured assents around the circle, and Andrahar, now feeling rather bewildered, though not unhappy in his bewilderment, nodded. "Thank you. I think I may wish to," he said. But then, quite convinced the news could not be all good, he asked: "But if I may ask, sir, why after six months?"

"Quite frankly because we have need of you here, and would be remiss to let you leave earlier," Ornendil said, and his tone grew more grim. The Armsmaster folded his hands in his lap as he explained, "Your skill makes you desirable as an instructor for the esquires; if I have not made you aware of that before, it was at least in part because I had misgivings about your ability to command their respect, given the, ah, general sentiment in which you were held.

"However," he continued quickly, "you are a Swan Knight now, and command is part of that calling and duty. In any battle, you should be able to step in and lead—indeed, you must be able to, regardless of how men may view your origins. It is not too early to begin learning to put the theory of command that you have been taught into practice, and teaching others requires you to be able to command them.

"Therefore, for the next term, you will be serving as an arms instructor, under my supervision," Ornendil said. "For that is the last thing I can teach you, and it behooves me to do so, for the sake of our company that can benefit by you."

"I am yours to command in this as in all things, sir," Andrahar replied, quietly. Now for the rest...

"There is one other thing that is vitally important for you to know, before you take up your duties in this area," the Armsmaster warned, as if on cue. "You may remember that after last year's incident, Prince Adrahil granted two of your attackers the opportunity to rejoin us in a year's time: Peloren and Elethil chose to accept that offer. If you take up this task, you will bear responsibility for their training, and we expect you to teach them as you would any other esquire."

The Armsmaster paused a moment, eyeing Andrahar, who absorbed this news in the grip of a rather sinking sensation. Peloren and Elethil. They had never been the worst of his detractors—even after their attack upon him, they still stood lower than their four more highly born peers for viciousness.

Still, am I now to teach them along with the others? Just as if nothing had ever happened between us? A spasm of anger gripped him, and he bit his tongue against it. For as he stared at the Armsmaster, who looked back challengingly, he realized he had no choice. A knight’s life, as he had heard a hundred times and more in the past four years, was a life of duty and service, and as one did not choose one’s talents, one also did not choose one’s duty. Where duty respected the Code, "I will not serve" was unthinkable, and the more so to one who had been raised to Harad’s strict ways. For one born to serve to refuse his destiny… there was no place among men for such a one.

"Then if they are my students, I shall do my duty by them, Armsmaster," he replied, even as he ruthlessly crushed under a mental heel the temptation to disgrace himself and beg off this chore.

"We expected no less of you," Ornendil replied. "But in this instance, we must ask more of you than simply duty. We need you not simply to teach them fairly; we need you to rehabilitate them in the eyes of their fellows."

Andrahar stiffened at that. "Me, sir?" he asked.

"Yes. We had hoped the Prince's justice would suffice to convince others they had paid their debt, but it has not. And after some discussion, it has become apparent that our efforts alone are not enough, either, and cannot be," Ornendil said, as he caught and held Andrahar’s eyes. "Some faults cannot be laid to rest without the assistance of the one offended."

"And you wish me to…" Andrahar cast about for the word.

"We need you to make it clear that the matter is behind the three of you. That you respect them, whether or not you like them."

"It would have to come one day or another, Andrahar," Valandil said quietly then. "Understand: short of a training accident or a spectacular failure of discipline, they will be knights one day, and soon. They will be your peers then. And once that happens, they come under my command, and the matter gains in gravity. A company of knights must trust each other, or it threatens our ability to act as one body on the field. If that happens, we lose knights, not esquires. We cannot afford that. We cannot afford a company riven by mistrust, but in this case, there are many who will not let go of it. But if you do so, then others will follow your lead, or so we hope. Do you understand?"

All too clearly, Andrahar thought, and tried not to let his dismay show as he nodded. "Yes, sir," he said softly.

"And will you take on this charge?"

"I shall... strive to," Andrahar managed. It was not the answer they wanted—he knew it—but given the turmoil of conflicted, angry emotion within, he could not bring himself honestly to say more than that. Valandil's eyes narrowed, and Andrahar was certain he was about to be prompted to the proper reply, but then he and Ornendil exchanged a look, and the Armsmaster nodded.

"Very well, then," Valandil said, apparently accepting his colleague's judgment. "That must suffice. Thank you, Andrahar." This time, Andrahar merely ducked his head, unwilling to speak. Valandil, however, was not finished yet. "Before we retire for the evening, I would beg your indulgence, gentlemen, to settle one final matter. Andrahar, would you please rise and remove your belt?"

That got his head up again, and after a moment's hesitation, he obeyed. When he had unbuckled it, he gave it into Valandil's waiting hands. The Captain of the Swan Knights rose then, and began carefully removing the sword and the pair of daggers from it, handing them off to Ornendil. Then he took either end in hand, gave it a tug to straighten it, and eyed the length a moment. With a nod, he laid the probationer's belt over one arm and moved to a chest behind his desk. There he knelt, inserted a key, and opened it. After a brief consideration of the contents, the captain reached within and withdrew something. Returning, he handed Andrahar's old belt to Illian, and carefully unrolled the new length of pure, white leather: the white belt of a full-formed knight.

"It is my honor to announce that Andrahar of Umbar, in service to crown and country and all those who depend upon men of knightly virtue for their safety, has proven himself in combat," the captain said. "Acknowledgment is late in coming, for it occurred some weeks ago in Harondor, as Captain Thorongil attested this evening, but it is certainly well-deserved." He gestured to Ornendil, who quickly helped him restore Andrahar's weapons to their proper place. Approaching Andrahar, then, Valandil belted the cincture about the young knight's narrow waist. Once finished, he laid hands upon Andrahar's shoulders and kissed his brow, as brother to brother.

"Be thou a good and faithful knight, as ever thou hast been," he finished, smiling faintly. As the other masters approached, and repeated the gesture, as witnesses traditionally did, roiling feelings settled a bit. For the disconcerting shifts of tone and emotion that evening gave way at last to the realization that they did not simply need him, but they actually trusted him. That, more so than even when Aerandir had made him a probationer, he was expected now to act the part he had said he desired to have: that of a Swan Knight of Dol Amroth, a member of a brotherhood that ought to endure to death and beyond.

In Harad, there was a proverb: Be wary, for the man who receives what he most wants is rarely to be envied.

"For what we want comes often only with things we do not desire at all," his mother had told him when he had been very young. And she had smiled sadly and said: "I had always desired a man such as your father. But see what such desire demands of us?"

The son of a slave who had dared to love a great lord surely ought to need no reminders of that lesson. You are a knight of Dol Amroth, just as you wished to be. Gird yourself then, and bear it, he told himself, as he murmured his thanks to the Captains. You will deal with Peloren and Elethil. Somehow. Andrahar had no least notion how, but there were six long months ahead of him.

He would have to hope that that was time enough to find a way forward.


Merry Yule, Pel—Elya

The brightly painted box atop which the note was laid could hardly be missed: a spot of color in an esquire's otherwise rather drab quarters. Peloren, newly returned from a few hours' work in the stables, had stared at it in puzzlement a moment before gingerly retrieving the note and opening it. Elethil must have left it before he was due on hall duty, he mused. Setting the note aside, he took the box in hand, shook it gently: inside, something slithered and there was a light chink!, as of something metallic.

"What under the stars...?" he wondered aloud. He and Elethil had always exchanged Yuletide gifts, though usually ahead of the actual day, since Peloren often made a swift journey home to Hathwyn and his family. Also, being esquires whose families were nobility of fairly modest means, and Elethil's much more so than Peloren's, such gifts were usually small things, occasionally edible, and often useful: a jar of Mistress Gilweth's marvelous ointment that helped ease sore muscles, or a bag of candied walnuts, or else a handful of the rare salted green nuts Peloren loved. Or, two years ago, a box of stationery so that Elethil, could respond to his younger sister's innumerable letters regarding her impending marriage, which correspondence had convinced Peloren there was perhaps nothing so troublesome as a wedding. Whatever was in this box, however, it sounded a bit more weighty, as it were, than Yuletide gifts past.

And I have yet to find one for him, either, Peloren thought. But that was hardly unusual, Peloren preferring to do his hunting late, though in point of fact, he had not intended to let the matter wait until the very day of Yuletide. But, he rationalized, there would now be plenty to see, and even bargains to be had, and had the easier, with more merchants about, eager to sell their wares before the evening. So he told himself, and had planned last night to go down into the city to discover what might be had as soon as he had finished his morning chores. Therefore, mindful of the fact that he was expected to take a shift on guard duty that afternoon and that he had wanted to spend some time studying the texts Master Harthil had prescribed for the next term, he crossed to his clothespress, quickly gathered what he needed, and then made for the bathroom.

Once there, he quickly scrubbed himself down, making liberal use of the various soaps that were kept on hand for bathers to use in order to get the scent of horse out of his hair and off his skin. When he had done, and dried himself off, he dressed quickly, returned to his room to set his dirty clothing in the basket he kept beneath his bed, and retrieved his purse from the locked trunk. A quick look within assured him he had enough for his needs, and then buckling it to his belt, he combed his fingers through wet hair until he had it more or less neatly pulled back, and tied it off in a queue. Satisfied that he would not be accosted as a disgrace to the Swan Knights, even though he was off duty at the moment and bore nothing to indicate he was an esquire, he made his way out into the nearly empty halls.

The Yule holidays had been blessedly peaceful thus far, as the bulk of the esquires abandoned the keep for the city below and its winter enchantments and fairs. All of the esquires from Dol Amroth and the surrounding countryside had gone home for Yule, and even a few of those from more distant provinces had gone to visit family, provided they lived near enough to make the journey there and back within a week's time. Ordinarily, Peloren would have been among that number, for the sea-route to Hathwyn was just swift enough. But after last year's dire holiday at home, he had declined his father's politely worded, but hardly cordial, invitation, excusing himself on the grounds that he needed to familiarize himself with his new duties as Master Théorwyn's assistant. That had been a rather satisfying letter to write, and had made the prospect of enduring his peers' company more tolerable.

But it appeared fortune was smiling on him for once: with fewer esquires about, and carnival distraction available, his peers seemed content truly to ignore him for once. After an awful term, it was a respite sorely needed, and Peloren had been glad to take advantage of it, enjoying the sense of reprieve unexpectedly granted him as he made the switch to practicing with a knights' squad that his new position and schedule necessitated.

However, it being holidays, he was not expected to spend overmuch time on these. He was limited to light instruction of pages, mostly, with a bit of veterinary care. And of course, for all pages and esquires, there was hall duty, which everyone shared in shifts. But considering that at least half the shift was spent on holiday galley work or else helping to decorate, it almost did not count as duty in Peloren's mind. Even the cool disregard of his fellows during such inevitable gatherings was bearable in light of that. And for a wonder, he was not one of those scheduled to attend upon the Prince this week.

All of which combined to give him more time to himself than he had had in months, and if only his new schedule and Elethil's had been more consonant, he would have counted himself happy enough, given the circumstances. Of course, even had Elethil's schedule coincided with his, he could hardly have taken his friend along today, considering his errand. He supposed he might ask after Celdir and his friends, if he truly desired company, for they had invited him once to join them in their excursions.

But Peloren had managed on some pretext of chores to decline with grace. They had not repeated the offer, and in truth, he was relieved. All things considered, he would rather not spend time with them. Still, he thought wistfully, it would be nice to have company...

Yet, lonely or not, the holiday hunt for gifts was nevertheless a pleasant enough task, for the folk of Dol Amroth were out in force, braving the cold, clear winter's day to enjoy the festival. There were plenty of things to see and do and taste, and Peloren had no need of a companion to enjoy any of it. He wandered from store to store, booth to booth, peered into boxes and bags, seeking he knew not what yet for Elethil, but certain he would know it when he saw it.

However, his first case through of the merchants' stalls turned up nothing, and a glance skyward showed that it was nearing noon, a fact his stomach affirmed by growling. The cooks at the castle tended to turn esquires out during holidays, knowing there was food aplenty to be found elsewhere, and so rather than depend upon so uncertain a reception, Peloren backtracked through the fair, following the scent of meat pies 'til at last he found the tavern that sold them. It was clearly a popular establishment, for it was teeming with people, and all the tables appeared to be full...

"Peloren?" The esquire turned, surprised, and saw a familiar face standing a little ways away, a tankard of ale in each hand.

"Aldan," Peloren replied, as recognition set in, and he moved to join the other. "What are you doing here?"

"Nothing much different from what you're doing here, I'm sure," the older man replied dryly, though he smiled to take the sting out of it. "We thought we would go out for a while, see what the world was doing since it is Yule."

"'We'?" Peloren asked, anxiously glancing about for esquires.

"Come join us, if you like," Aldan invited. "Otherwise, if you're looking for a table, you'll get none 'til this crowd clears out."

"I wouldn't want to make matters awkward—" Peloren started to decline, but Aldan shook his head.

"You won't be," the other assured him. "Come along." With a nod toward the back of the tavern, Aldan began walking, and Peloren, after a moment, began following him. They wove among the tables, carefully avoiding tavern lasses and lads who were dashing about to bring food and drink. Eventually, they reached a table set along one wall, and there sat a bright-eyed, round-faced woman who cocked her head inquisitively at Peloren, ere she smiled up at Aldan.

"My thanks, love," she said, as Aldan slid the tankard before her, and smiling, she laid a hand over his. Then returning her gaze to Peloren, she asked, "Who's this lad, then?"

"Naleth, this is Peloren of Hathwyn, up in Anfalas. Peloren," Aldan said, and his smile would have given it all away even had Naleth not already, "may I introduce my wife, Naleth?"

"A merry Yule to you, mistress," Peloren said politely, and to her amusement, made her a bow. "And well-met, for I have heard much of you."

"Goodness, 'Dan, he's polished like an apple!" she laughed. "Not but what that's expected, I'm sure. You'll have to excuse me, I ought to have been calling you 'lord.' Should have guessed from the clothes."

Peloren glanced down at himself, then aside at Aldan. He had not chosen anything of particular note to wear, preferring warmth and sturdiness over embroidery, but plainly, she was right: Peloren's own outfit was definitely of noticeably finer quality than what his fellow esquire wore. And there was still the dagger he had thrust through his belt—common folk, unless they were craftmasters, did not generally come by weapons with etched hilts, however simple the design.

Recovering himself somewhat, he smiled, and shrugged, and said, "You need not apologize, nor call me 'lord.' So long as we are all esquires, we are told to address each other as brothers. You are Aldan's wife, so surely there is no need for such formalities, mistress."

"Then you can stop calling me 'mistress,' lad. 'Naleth' will do between friends and brothers-in-law. But come and sit with us. Aldan comes home but once a week now that he's with the Swan Knights, and I have not met many of his friends this year," she invited, gesturing for Peloren to join them. And since refusing would have been difficult, Peloren acquiesced, and not unhappily in fact, taking the stool opposite her. As Aldan squeezed in beside her on the bench, she eyed Peloren closely, and said, "Unless I misremember, it's you I have to thank Aldan hasn't broken anything falling off a horse, I think."

"I've told her how you've been helping me with the riding," Aldan supplied.

"Ah. Well, mi—Naleth, I fear I have not prevented every fall, but I have got him staying on the horse more times than not, at least," Peloren allowed, and Naleth laughed again.

"Which is more than I would ever have wagered. And I am grateful. Years I've spent trying to convince him the only sensible thing to do with a spear is run from it, and he's too thick-headed to heed me—" Aldan made a slightly indignant noise of protest at this, though Peloren detected no real ire "—but thick skull or no, a horse could no doubt crack it. I'd like him to be whole when the baby comes, and perhaps with your help, he will be," Naleth said, and pressed a hand over her swollen belly.

"Congratulations to you both," Peloren replied quietly, and watched them smile at each other.

"My thanks. Are you married, lad? Or do you have a lass you fancy?" Naleth asked, curiously.

"No, there is no one. I am not even betrothed yet. At least, not that I know of," Peloren replied. Naleth chuckled, and the esquire forced a smile. No doubt she thought that no more than a bit of jesting, but his father had been making noises about betrothing him for the past two years. Indeed, it was only the fact that Peloren was the Lord of Hathwyn's second son that had left him free so long.

Alas for Palavir, his efforts to find a wife for his younger son had been upset somewhat by Peloren's expulsion from the Swan Knights. The more cautious lords had been polite, but as of last Yule, daughters had been sick, or too young, or away visiting family, or perhaps the dowry had not been quite in hand—there had always been some reasonable thing to prevent consideration of Palavir's offer.

And then there had been the other replies from lords less cautious.

"I do not care how much it may please some to contract with us over your misadventure with that Southron, I'll not risk the Prince's wrath in accepting such allies," Palavir had declared. And he had scowled, and said, "I hope you appreciate the trouble you have caused!"

"Yes, Father. I am sorry, sir," Peloren had replied dutifully, and bowed his head to hide his relief.

All of which had been yet another reason to avoid Yuletide in Hathwyn this year, personal disgrace aside. Since against all odds, he had his freedom still, he might as well enjoy it as best he could. For it would not last forever, he knew. One day, he would come home to find a girl waiting for him, having been chosen by his parents from the lasses they considered suitably well-bred and dowered. In all likelihood, he would be told only then that he had been betrothed the past six months and would be expected to marry immediately. For despite his deep disappointment in Peloren of late, Palavir was a sensible soul and took the duties of lord and father seriously: it was only good sense to see one's son wedded and bedded before the first real campaign, after all.

Nevertheless, it was not a day Peloren was particularly looking forward to, but watching Aldan and Naleth, seeing their obvious happiness in each other, it occurred to him that perhaps marriage need not be so burdensome.

Just then, one of the serving lasses appeared with lunch, she and Naleth chatting amiably, bonding over pregnancy. Naleth touched her arm and gestured to Peloren after a few moments, saying, "Here's another hungry one for you, dear. Could you bring something for him?"

"Of course. Anything in particular, good sir?"

"Whatever is quickest ready," Peloren said, and she nodded.

"I'll be but a little," she replied, and disappeared again.

"Please go ahead," Peloren said to his tablemates when she had gone, for the two of them had not moved to touch their food.

"I'll wait a bit," Aldan replied, though he said to Naleth: "You should eat, though, for while it wouldn't be so much trouble, after all the Armsmaster has put me through, to carry you if you fainted, I own I'd hoped to avoid any such heavy lifting for a few more days!"

Naleth wrinkled her nose at him, and swatted his arm, but she did attend to her lunch gratefully. However, she apparently felt obliged to play hostess of their table for the lapse in manners. "And what brought you down to the city this morning, Peloren?" she asked after a moment.

"I was looking for a Yule gift for Elethil," he replied, and told of his efforts thus far. About the middle of his tale, the serving girl returned, bearing with her one of the meat pies and some ale, which proved distracting enough that they all fell silent for a time.

Three healthy appetites made short work of the meal, and as they finished, Naleth sighed. "Well, I suppose you need to find that gift, and we had a few last things to look at as well. More blankets, for one! Hand up, love?" Aldan obligingly helped her to her feet, sliding an arm about her waist. Peloren, meanwhile, quickly added up the prices and withdrew the appropriate amount from his purse, laying it on the table. "Here, now, there's no need for that!" Naleth protested.

"Indeed, I think I ought to by buying you lunch for all the help you've been, lad," Aldan added.

Peloren, who had been about to say that it was really no trouble, that he could afford it, fortunately caught the undertone just in time to keep it behind his teeth and avoid unintentionally ending the one friendship he had managed to cultivate this past term. Glancing from one to the other, he quickly amended his excuse, shrugging slightly as he said, "I had hoped it might serve as a Yule gift, since I fear I don't know what to get either of you. Other than something for the baby, that is, but alas! I have enough trouble shopping for those who can say what they want, as you can see!"

Then he waited a bit breathlessly, hoping that would serve not to offend pride. And it seemed he had guessed rightly, for Naleth relented after a moment, though she was quick to say: "You should come and have supper with us tomorrow. 'Dan's bringing a few others home—mostly men from his old company and their wives, though I think there may be a few others...?" She trailed off, glancing questioningly at her husband.

"Teilin and Ambor," Aldan said, naming two esquires. They were also, like Aldan, men who had come up from the infantry companies, though they were further along in their training than he was. Peloren hesitated, quickly running through his memories, trying to decide if he had ever got much in the way of hostile feeling from them especially. For much as he desired to avoid such conflicts for his own sake, he certainly did not want to bring them into Aldan's home... "No worries, lad, they're sensible about things," his friend said then, and gave Peloren a significant look.

"I see. Well, I should like to then."

"Good! Then we shall see you then at latest," Naleth said. "'Dan will fetch you home with the others."

"And if you think he'd care to, tell your friend, Elethil, to come as well," Aldan added, which was a bit of a surprise. Peloren had introduced the two of them to each other, and they had talked a few times together, or met while on stable duty or the like, but he had not got the impression that the two of them had pursued things beyond pleasantries. But Aldan met his eyes, then, and Peloren understood: You need time away, both of you. Which was too true, and so:

"I shall ask him. Thank you both," Peloren replied. "Good day!"

"Merry Yule, lad!"

They parted then, Aldan and Naleth making for the weavers' stalls, while Peloren recommenced his quest to find a proper Yule gift for Elethil with renewed vigor, conscious of the winnowing of his hours. At length, he happened upon a latecomer to the fair: a stall was going up that had a harp painted upon it. A maker of instruments? Peloren thought, and quickened his pace to investigate.

"Good day, sir," the proprietor said, while his two apprentices struggled with the cases. "Come looking for a little music?"

"Mayhap," Peloren replied. For Elethil did play, though only rarely, and he was hardly a great musician. But he did well enough for the occasional plays the esquires put on behind the backs of their betters... "I've a friend who might appreciate it, though he is a very novice at it, in truth."

"Is that so? Well, what's his fancy? Drums? Harps?"

"Do you have any reed pipes?"

"Is the sky blue?" the man countered, scoffing as he led Peloren over to look at several examples thereof. "I'm from the Ethir, young sir, the best place in all Gondor to find reeds for whatever you can imagine!"

There were several types, ranging from large, deep pipes, to the short-length fisherman's pipes which consisted of several narrow reads bound together side by side to play a scale or more. Despite their simplicity, they appeared to have been well made, and even nicely painted in a few instances. Peloren selected one, a small pipe made of a narrow reed, perhaps the length of his forearm.

"Let me hear you play it," he told the merchant, who obligingly fluted a quick scale and a brief melody. Peloren might not play, but to his ear, it sounded sweet enough. "That will do. How much?"

Some half hour later, he was making his way back to the keep, his gift in its case stuffed in the back of his belt and safely out of sight. He would lock it in his trunk while he was on duty and deliver it later that evening to Elethil, when he intended to find out what it was Elethil had chosen for him. He had just turned a corner and was about to pass the bathroom when the door opened and another emerged, right into his path.

"Oof!" Peloren staggered a bit, and so did the other, who was solidly built for all he was shorter than the esquire. Then:

"My apologies—"

"Please excuse—"

And then they both stopped mid-sentence, staring at each other, and Peloren felt as if his heart had landed in his stomach. Andrahar of Umbar rocked back on his heels slightly, and if he wasn't precisely glaring at him, Peloren was not such a fool as to mistake no expression for calm. Bright black eyes managed to darken even further as Andrahar stared up at him, while Peloren strove to find something to say. But his mind was blank as a scribe's copy slate, and for the life of him it seemed he could not fill it with words.

At long last, Andrahar broke the silence: "Excuse me," he said curtly, and then brushed by him, clearly as little desirous of further speech as Peloren was.

But I've surely got to say something! Apparently so, for without his willing it, he had turned, and he heard himself call out: "Andrahar." The Southron paused and glanced back at him. I'm sorry, Peloren thought. What came out was: "Merry Yule." Andrahar's eyes narrowed ominously. But after a moment:

"And to you," he replied, then resumed his course, leaving Peloren to lean back against the wall, eyes closing as he bit his lip. Valar curse it all and damn the luck! he swore, and it was as if all the frustration and fear of the term had conspired to knot itself up into a single weight of misery in his gut. He slapped the wall behind him, just to feel it, then pushed his hands through his hair. Damn it! He wasn't sure which he was cursing more: fate or himself or Andrahar. He wasn’t even certain whether it mattered.

But there was no time to ponder such questions: he had a shift in the hall he had to take, and so after a few moments, he shook himself and hurried towards his quarters, there to change quickly into his livery. The pipe he did lock in his chest, and for safe measure, he shoved that well under his bed in an attack of fearfulness. Then it was out to the hall at a trot, for not only was he due on duty, but he needed to find Elethil, to warn him before he had his own unexpected encounter.

"Ah, Peloren!" He heard his name called as he entered the hall, and saw Armsmaster Ornendil standing there by the hearth, Elethil at his side, away from the bustle. Ominously, Elethil was looking rather as pale as Peloren thought he himself must... "I'd like a word with you."

"Armsmaster," Peloren murmured as he approached. Elethil's jaw was clenched, his eyes worried: clearly he was bursting to speak, but he deferred to Ornendil, who said:

"I've spoken to Elethil already, but I wanted to give you each a warning: Andrahar—"

"Is back, sir. We, ah, we've met already," Peloren replied, unsettled enough to actually interrupt the Armsmaster. Ornendil blinked, and gave him a close stare, ere he said:

"I see. Well, then that is half the news already." Half? Peloren thought, aware of Elethil miserably looking on. "The masters and Captain Valandil have discussed the matter, and we are making Andrahar an instructor in swordsmanship and Haradric next term. That means you will be spending some time under his tutelage. Now, we've already spoken with him about this, but the two of you deserve a little advance notice."

"Thank you, sir," Peloren murmured, by sheer rote habit.

"I know this is not news either of you welcome, but do your best—and lads, it would help us all if the three of you would try to come to some terms with each other, not simply tolerate each other. All right?"

"Yes, sir," they both said. Ornendil could hardly overlook their lack of enthusiasm, but he simply sighed, and smiled slightly.

"All this term we've spent reminding you that war is hardship, to be faced with courage. If you can face that, then this should not be beyond you. Go on, now. I'll see you in the hall come supper." With that, the Armsmaster left them, and Peloren, after a moment, laid a hand on Elethil's shoulder.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Are you?" Elethil retorted, pinching the bridge of his nose tiredly.

"I'll manage. We'll manage. We've got to, or we’re through, Elya," Peloren said, and shook his head determinedly. "And I'm not willing to give it up yet." With that, he glanced around, seeking the castellan who was overseeing the esquires that were climbing up to the rafters to hang garlands. He had just spotted him, when Elethil spoke again:

"Is he still angry?" he asked, in an urgent undertone.

Peloren drew a deep breath, and gave Elethil an unhappy look ere he replied, with grim certainty:

"Oh yes."

~~~

To be continued...


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