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4
Plague of Fears

The Yule gathering was every bit as awful as Peloren had imagined it would be from the moment he had met Andrahar in the hall. The Southron's presence among the knights seated across the Great Hall at least put him far enough away that there was little chance two esquires would encounter him. But that did not spare Peloren or Elethil the whispers, for gossip ran through the ranks like lice or fire, and the few esquires who had not heard tell of his return could hardly be ignorant of it when—in the other surprise of the evening—Imrahil made his appearance at last, for he insisted upon bringing Andrahar up to dine with him and the royal family.

Watching as Imrahil embraced Andrahar and half-dragged his reluctant and somewhat scandalized friend along with him to the high table, Celdir snorted. "From homeless waif to knighted oath-brother of the Heir to Dol Amroth," he muttered, just loud enough for the table to hear, and shook his head in disgust.

Faldion grunted at that, and rolled his eyes a little. But then: "'Tis a long way indeed. I doubt even the Pelóri could keep him from his ends."

Which bit of verbal cleverness was hardly lost on anyone, even without the disdainful look tossed in Peloren's direction, and Peloren felt his fists clench beneath the table as he struggled to bite back on an impolite retort.

"Why, Faldi, I had no idea your tongue had such a singular wit! Nevertheless, perhaps we might speak of something more pleasant," Celdir said then in a mild tone, though Faldion stiffened at the use of the hated short-form of his name and the clearly back-handed praise, and Peloren inwardly groaned. Since no one seemed to believe Celdir was not a part of his and Elethil's 'faction,' no doubt the jab would come back around to him or to Elethil eventually.

Just what we need! he thought, spearing a bit of pheasant on his knife, and determinedly ignoring the tension that emanated from further down the table. Beside him, Elethil simply reached for his wine glass and downed the contents in a rather inelegant gulp. But neither of them spoke, grimly resolved to endure the evening without adding anything to the warring in the esquire ranks.

Resolve, however, did not prevent them from hearing things as the evening progressed. Particularly once the new esquires had been sworn in and the dancing began, so also did the serious gossip-mongering. News was beginning to leak out of Andrahar's assignment of the past several months, and there came a point when Peloren, already fed up with the looks from his fellow esquires, simply did not wish to hear another word of it. Nor had he any desire to immerse himself in everyone else's holiday cheer or to endure the apparent sympathy of Celdir and his lot, which, whether intentionally or otherwise, merely reminded him at every turn of how little he had to celebrate this year.

And while wine was a cure for many things, he was beginning to get to the point where it might do more harm than good—he certainly did not need anything to loosen his tongue this evening if he wished to avoid an impolitic and probably unknightly remark that might send him to Ornendil in violation of his oath of courtesy.

Therefore, bowing to his dancing partner of the moment, he excused himself and slipped out of the hall. There he paused and considered his options. After only a brief moment of indecision, he pulled his gloves from his belt, drew them on, cast his hood up, then made for outer wall of the keep, and the stables.

It was quiet outside, the night sky clear so the glitter of winter stars shone brightly down beneath a waxing moon. It was also bitterly cold, and Peloren shivered as he hurried across the yard. The stable doors were closed, but he cracked them open and slipped inside, pausing a moment in the darkness that smelt of horses and hay to find the lantern and matches. There were always a pair of lanterns ready for use, though it was absolutely forbidden to leave one lit and unattended, and woe unto the page who so much as took two steps toward the door without dousing the light, or who let a match fall to the floor instead of putting it in the metal pail that was kept expressly for that purpose.

Peloren was far too well-versed in the ways of the Dol Amroth stables to make such errors, so his match went immediately into the pail and he held the lantern carefully as he moved down the rows of slumbering horses. It was warmer in among them, and as he walked, every so often, one would raise its head to look at him, or they would shift and tails would swish idly. One or two nickered softly at him, and he hushed them as he passed, gently patting noses that were thrust over the stall doors to investigate.

At length, he came to Lightfall's door, and his gelding, already alerted by the others, was waiting there. Warm, horsy breath blew in his face as Lightfall snorted, and Peloren quickly hung the lantern on a hook that hung down from the ceiling. Then he reached, caught Lightfall's face, and pressed his own up against it, eyes shut as he whispered soothing nothings and reached to stroke and scratch the gelding's neck. Lightfall nickered, lifting his head slightly to hook it over Peloren's shoulder, possessively drawing his rider in closer. Long lashes tickled against Peloren's cheek, and Lightfall obligingly mouthed his back, which undoubtedly would leave his livery in need of a wash, but he hardly cared.

"Hsst, lad, you like that, eh? Just like that?" Peloren murmured, scratching a little harder, and Lightfall sighed contentedly.

He was not sure how long he had stood there, but it surely was not more than a half hour or so before he heard the creak of the doors, and then the hesitant tread of someone groping his way forward in the near-darkness. "Pel?" the intruder murmured uncertainly. Peloren leaned heavily against his horse a moment before responding.

"Elya," he replied. "Over here."

More scuffling in the darkness as Elethil turned down a corner, following his voice or else having caught sight of the light as he moved. In either case, it was not long before his friend arrived, leaning against the door-post to peer at him. And he murmured greetings to Lightfall, stroking the animal's nose as the horse sniffed. "I thought you would go to your room or your horse," Elethil said.

"I just got tired of everyone; horses are better company," Peloren said, reaching out to slap Lightfall's neck affectionately, then he curled his fingers and continued scratching.

"Aye, well, horses don't keep throwing Imri's pet at us. Can't turn around in the hall without it being 'Andrahar this' or 'Andrahar that'—not that they'd have a whit of interest were it not for us," Elethil muttered, darkly.

Peloren only grunted, shifting a little uncomfortably, though he did not doubt Elethil was right: so far as the esquires were concerned, Andrahar's return to Dol Amroth was one more thing to torment them with or else a matter to complain of in the cordial, vicious way of verbal warfare so beloved of Celdir, Torlas, and Iordel. As for the rest of the guests, undoubtedly the novelty of a Southron who had saved the Heir, got a beating for his trouble, and yet remained loyal was an irresistible topic of gossip. Fate loved irony, and Peloren and Elethil spent a glum moment contemplating it.

But after a little while, Elethil straightened up, and he raised the arm he had kept tucked under his cloak to produce a box. A quite familiar box. "When you weren't in your room, I thought I might make better company if I came looking for you with this," he explained, changing the subject. "Merry Yule."

"And I don't have yours with me," Peloren sighed, chagrined, but Elethil merely shrugged again.

"Open it."

So he did, carefully lifting the lid. Inside lay something dark and coiled up about itself, with a shine of metal tucked at the center. It was a belt. Not the sort to hang a sword from, but a nicely made one, whose buckle was cunningly wrought in the shape of a horse's head, the neck arching around, so the head turned back upon the leather, as if the animal were looking backwards.

"I saw it awhile ago down at the tanner's," Elethil explained. "When you said Master Théorwyn wanted you for an assistant, I thought it would suit."

"I think it shall," Peloren replied, touched. He ran a thumb over the buckle, ere he looked up at his friend. "Thank you."

"One of us has to do the Fifth company proud at least, even if not anyone else," Elethil said, bitterly. "It looks to be you."

"Elya," Peloren chided gently.

"'Tis but truth. I know I am no wonder at anything—not like you with horses. I wager I am not even the best in my family. Three older brothers, all knighted, and have I ever taken one of them down?" He shook his head, then gestured to the belt once more, changing the subject. "I figure it won't show under a sword-belt, if you're so inclined." Which was to say, there was little risk of any of their classmates noticing and taking it for cheek or the like, nor of making a haughty fuss over it and inspiring ill-feeling among the others.

"Well, it's the pages and lads like Aldan I'll be getting, anyway," Peloren replied. "Not that I'm complaining. By the way, I met Aldan and his wife today."

"Oh? What's she like?" Elethil asked.

"Forthright. Seems a very stout sort of person. They are quite the pair," Peloren answered, smiling a little. "And they say you should come with me and join them and a few of their friends for supper tomorrow."

"Truly?" Elethil asked, surprised.

"Truly. Come on, it would be a night away from the hall," Peloren wheedled.

"If it gets me away from Andrahar and his newfound admirers, that's enough for me. I'll come," Elethil replied, reaching into his scrip at that moment to retrieve a flask. Peloren frowned.

"What's that?"

"Yuletide gift to myself. I got it yesterday when I went to the tanner's," Elethil answered, and took a swig before proffering it to Peloren. "I don't mind sharing, if you want some."

Peloren, who had already been feeling a bit tipsy when he had retired to the stables, grunted, but he did accept, raising it to his lips. The flask reeked, and Peloren jerked his head back slightly. "Phew!" Elethil only raised a brow—'Will you drink or no?' that look said, and so Peloren drew a breath and then took a quick swallow. It tasted worse than it smelled, even, and Peloren coughed, grimacing as he choked it down.

"Where did you find this?" he demanded, handing it back to Elethil, who promptly took another drink.

"The Harp and Sails tavern."

"I cannot believe anyone would admit to making it, let alone selling it," Peloren exclaimed. Nevertheless, when Elethil extended the flask back to him, he took it and another good-sized swallow. And then another. "Valar, that is utterly vile!"

"Which is why I bought it. I think it was an experiment—you know how folk like that Khandian melon liquor? That is what it is, supposedly, though I don't believe it." Elethil paused to take another sip, ere he concluded: "Awful stuff, but it is strong—puts you out pretty quick if you're tired."

His friend narrowed his eyes. "Have you bought this before?" he asked, in consternation.

"Found out about it awhile ago," Elethil confessed, ducking his head. "I, um, got tired of being tired, and waking up at night, so..."

"You drink this every night before you go to bed?" Peloren demanded, appalled.

"It doesn't take much, and I don't dream, and if anyone does come in, I don't know it."

"Why not ask the healers for something?" he asked. The look Elethil gave him was answer enough, and Peloren sighed. Of course. Healers were off-limits for their sort of problem, for to get their assistance, one would have to explain, and explaining in this case was entirely too close to complaining and an admission one couldn't handle matters. And they had to handle things if they wished to survive, so no healers. "You don't get sick in the morning? Or have a headache?" Peloren asked, after a moment.

"Not enough of it in me for that. It's a little like taking wine—a lot of people do it, you know," his friend said, a touch defensively still. Peloren shuddered as Elethil sipped again.

"Then why not follow custom and drink wine? You certainly were drinking plenty of that earlier. This is terrible!"

"Ah, but that is its virtue," Elethil said, grinning a little now. "It tastes bad enough that I'm not tempted to drink more than a little of it."

For some reason, that actually made sense, quite possibly because Elethil was not the only one who had had a few glasses of Dorwinion that evening, and so Peloren simply nodded, watching as Elethil tipped his head back once more, then handed the flask over. "Just a little... I suppose that's all right." Elethil shrugged. "There's not even much more in here," Peloren said, giving the flask a swirl, feeling the contents slosh about.

"See? It's only a little."

"Right." Peloren took another swig, gagging a bit as some of it touched his tongue despite his efforts to toss it straight back. It burned all the way down, and he coughed, swaying a bit. Then: "Valar, we are in trouble!"

"Hear, hear," Elethil muttered.

"I mean real trouble. Not just this tonight."

"Oh aye."

A pause, as the flask was passed between them once and again. Then:

"D'you think he'll kill us?" Peloren asked, as he draped an arm over Lightfall's neck and leaned against his horse.

Elethil snorted. "I wish!" he replied, grimly, and produced a second flask from his scrip. "To Andra... I don't know why."

"Your health," Peloren sighed, and downed the rest of the flask in a long, awful swallow.

"Health," Elethil muttered, unstoppering the new one. He shook his head. "Right."


It was some time and two empty flasks later that they staggered out of the stables, Peloren having managed somehow to douse the light before leaving. Plunged into darkness, they had tripped and stumbled their way forward, acquiring a few scrapes and knocked knees and shins along the way. By the time they had woven their unsteady way back to the Fledglings' Wing, Peloren had thrown up once, and Elethil looked to be on the verge of it, though perhaps from long practice, he valiantly held on and shakily held his friend up when Peloren doubled over a frozen flowerbed and heaved up the remains of his supper.

"Least 'twasn't t'halls," Peloren muttered as they reached his room, after exaggeratedly counting every door to make certain it was number five. It was dark within—Elethil had apparently blown out the candle he had used earlier, or else it had gone out by itself. Neither of them bothered to try to light a new one, recognizing on some level that efforts to do so were more likely to end in them burning themselves than aught else. Fortunately, Peloren had left his room clean, and there was nothing for them to trip over as Elethil and he swayed over to and then stumbled against the bed. There Elethil, who had had one of Peloren's arms over his shoulder and been supporting much of his weight, more or less dropped him before his own knees buckled.

Peloren groaned, holding his breath while he waited for his stomach to settle. Somewhere nearby, Elethil muttered something unintelligible, and metal scraped on flagstone as the chamber pot was groped for. But nothing happened, and after a moment, the sheets shifted beneath Peloren as Elethil grasped them and tried to pull himself up.

Eventually, Peloren reached out and caught his friend's arm, tugging 'til he felt the mattress dip as Elethil literally crawled in beside him. Peloren then made a supreme effort and managed to scoot himself a little further toward the wall to make room for him. The world felt rather more than simply fuzzy, and Peloren willed it away. And despite what Elethil had said earlier, likely it was precisely that that was the virtue of the awful liquor, for with his wish, everything seemed to melt away...

Blackness.


Dawn came and went unheeded, and even much of the morning. At some point, Peloren stirred, brought out of his stupor by the sound of Elethil succumbing at last to the ills of too much drink. He vaguely hoped his friend had found the chamber pot after all, but then he sank back down into unconsciousness.

An uncertain while later, he was wakened again as he became aware, in the midst of a more general achiness, of an uncomfortable pressure just below his stomach. After a few moments spent fuzzily contemplating that feeling, Peloren groaned softly and forced himself to turn over onto his other side, then pushed himself up onto an elbow. It took a bit of effort, for not only did he ache all over, but his head felt like it had rocks in it. Or perhaps not. Rocks didn't feel pain, after all. But maybe it was more that rocks—in general, and these in particular—pained him...?

"Too early for this," he mumbled, wincing at the dim light that leaked through the shutters, which were not quite fully closed. Valar, what happened last night? Memory was blurry, yet he did recall the stables, and the liquor... But his bladder's promptings were more urgent than such questions, ultimately, and so he climbed over Elethil, who protested only a little, then slid off the side of his bed to land in a heap on the flagstones.

Lying there, breathing hard, and wishing the cool of the stones would do something to ease the murderous headache, Peloren waited out the bout of sickness 'til he was reasonably certain he would not vomit if he moved. Then slowly, he opened bleary eyes and found the chamber pot half under the bed. It had most definitely been used, but Peloren hooked his fingers over the rim anyway, pulled it nearer, and then began the painful process of sitting up. With the help of the bed, he managed to get to his knees, then decided he wouldn't be going further than that for a time, and so began fumbling the buttons on his trousers. His aim probably wasn't that good anyway, even if he had felt able to stand up...

Once he had finished, doing up the buttons again presented a challenge, but Peloren managed to get enough of them into some (even if not the right) buttonholes for modesty's sake. Then he glanced at the bed. Elethil was still asleep, sprawled out bonelessly on his back, one leg dangling off the side. He looked very pale and not at all well, and after a few moments, Peloren slumped at the bedside. I can't! Folding his arms atop Elethil's chest, he laid his head upon them and squeezed his eyes shut...

He was not sure how long they stayed like that, but the knock on the door startled him, and he jerked upright, hissing in pain at the movement. Elethil moaned. "Peloren?" came the slightly muffled query. "Are you in there?"

Peloren debated rising to answer the door, but only briefly ere he called back, "Aye. Who's there?"

"Aldan," came the reply, and the esquire frowned in puzzlement.

"Aldan? What're you doing here?" he asked.

There was a slight pause, then: "May I come in?"

Peloren sighed. "Yes."

The door opened to reveal his fellow esquire standing there, neatly brushed and looking entirely too lively for Peloren's tastes. Aldan blinked, hesitating on the threshold as he took in the tableau before him, but then he snorted and entered, closing the door behind him.

"So, you've come down with the Yuletide plague, I see," he said amiably, and Peloren scowled at him.

"It's not funny," he muttered.

"Maybe not for you. Or Elethil. Valar, Elethil, are you all right?" Aldan bent worriedly over the other, laying a hand to the side of his throat, feeling for a pulse.

"Jus' kill me or go 'way," came the slurred reply, and Elethil batted weakly at him. Aldan's face cleared a little, and he pulled a bright smile.

"No such luck, my lad. It's well past noon. There's not much of the day left, and if you do want to avoid dinner in the hall this evening, it's high time to effect a cure of the two of you so you can leave with me. So, up with you both. Or shall I bring Kendrion in?"

Which threat was cruel and wholly uncalled for, in Peloren's estimation, but it did prompt him to make an effort to rise. With Aldan's hands under his arms, he actually managed it. "I'll get Pel moving first, then come back for you, Elethil. You'd best be sitting up by then or I'm fetching a healer," Aldan warned, as he began guiding Peloren toward the door.

The bathroom was not far, fortunately, and the servants knew to keep a large quantity of hot water on hand after holidays, so it was but a short while later that Peloren found himself contemplating the astonishing fact that the liquor tasted worse on his tongue in the morning than it had going down, and trying not to sleep in his bath. Aldan had left to go fetch Elethil, so temptation was high to simply let the warmth of the water lull him back to sleep. But he was afraid if he did, Aldan might fetch Kendrion anyway, and so he rubbed soap into his hair, fingers gently massaging the tender spots of his skull, where the aforementioned rocks within it seemed to be pressing hardest.

"What under the stars did the two of you drink last night?" Aldan demanded as he returned a short while later with Elethil hanging off his shoulder. He sat the esquire down next to the by now steaming tub that awaited him and began undoing belt buckles and buttons and pulling boots.

"Dunno. Something... melon? Ask Elethil," Peloren said, leaning forward gingerly so he could rinse the soap out of his hair.

"Melon? You mean that rotgut from Harp and Sails they pass off as Khandian liquor?"

Peloren started to nod, thought the better of it. "That's it."

"How much?"

"Two flasks."

Aldan stared at him, and then at Elethil, and he shook his head. "Was a time I'd have congratulated you for a new record, but a man's got to be desperate to drink more than two fingers' worth of it," he grunted, as he began working on buttons and ties. "We used to take the new lads there, when I was in the Third Company, and force a glass on them. Sort of a rite of passage. No one ever asked for a second round unless his wife was cuckolding him. Not that you two have that excuse." Aldan paused in his efforts to undress Elethil, who was not contributing much to the process, simply leaning his head on Aldan's shoulder exhaustedly.

"Not yet," Peloren replied, softly. Aldan shook his head again, and then reached and peeled Elethil out of tunic and shirt, both at once. Then, apparently deciding against getting Elethil on his feet, he simply pushed him to lie down on the bench and wrestled his trousers off.

"Come on, lad, in with you," Aldan cajoled, as he manhandled a rather less than coordinated Elethil into the tub. Then: "Peloren, the servants are in the chamber beyond—see that he doesn't drown himself. I'll return in a little while."

Shaking his head one last time at them both, Aldan departed, destination unknown, leaving the two to their own devices. Peloren, who was perhaps feeling somewhat revived by the steam, glanced over at Elethil, who still looked pasty white and sick. "You going to be all right, Elya?"

"'F I don' move, maybe."

"Thought you said you drank this stuff regularly."

"Not that much."

"Don't drink it again, will you?"

Elethil sighed, putting his head in his hands. When he spoke, it was slowly, as if he were concentrating on every word. "Pel, my tongue feels like clay and my head feels like a war-horse kicked it. Can we not talk right now?" he pleaded.

"Well, I'm not drinking it again. Valar, my head hurts!" Peloren shut his eyes and clenched his teeth and every muscle against pain that seemed to pulse from just behind his eyes. I will not be sick, I will not be sick... there's worse than this in life. Like dying. And what doesn't kill me... leaves me alive. That wasn't how the sergeants' favorite saying went, but at the moment the proper conclusion escaped him. But the spirit of it remained with him, despite his impairment, and drawing a deep breath, he held out a hand blindly, and said through gritted teeth: "Hand me the soap."

When Aldan did return, he was pleased to find his charges still conscious, and even having made some progress despite their misery. Or rather, Peloren had made some progress; Elethil at least was still awake, much to his regret, and Peloren had managed to scrub his friend's back. That apparently was good enough for Aldan, for he helped Peloren out of the tub then and into the clean uniform kept in his cubby hole, then mercifully let him sit down on one of the benches while he went and saw to Elethil. Eventually, Elethil was deposited next to him, while Aldan struggled to get his boots back on.

As before, Elethil simply turned and laid his head on whichever shoulder was nearest, which this time was Peloren's. Peloren slipped an arm about his suffering friend's back, and murmured: "Please don't throw up on me, Elya."

"Try not to," came the muffled reply.

Once the task of getting dressed was done, Aldan hauled Elethil up again, then said to Peloren: "You'll have to manage on your own. Come on, I've talked with Cook, she'll have something for you."

Some time and much coaxing and cajoling later, they sat in a corner of the hall, while Aldan stood over them and forced them to drink an unbelievable amount of water and starflower tea, walking each of them to the garderrobe in turn as needed, 'til Peloren at last owned he could probably handle toast. Probably. Cook, when told of this, had a servant bring a pot out with it anyway, just in case.

"Thanks," Peloren said quietly to Aldan, when the manservant had gone, and nibbled on the toast.

"I own I was a little worried when I heard that no one had seen you since last night," the older man said. Peloren grunted.

"I'm only grateful there's no duty for anyone the day after Yule," he sighed. "We'd be running 'til the end of the term otherwise."

"No doubt." Aldan paused then, and considered his own teacup a moment, before he spoke again in a low voice. "Look, lads, if you recall, I was at home with Naleth and our families yestereve, so I've not heard all the news. Did something happen up here last night?" he asked bluntly. "Or were you both just stupid?"

There was a moment's hesitation, ere both Elethil and Peloren said at once: "Stupid."

It must not have been a very convincing response, for Aldan snorted. "Somehow I doubt that," he said.

But neither Peloren nor Elethil were in the mood to satisfy curiosity; Elethil, indeed, seemed to have exhausted himself in that one declaration, and so Peloren said simply, "'Tis the Yuletide plague, like you said. Must've caught it from Faldion, maybe. Or Celdir."

Elethil choked at that, having been caught in the middle of finishing his tea. Aldan obligingly slapped him on the back, and both he and Peloren waited anxiously, 'til it was plain there would be no need of the pot. "Swallowed wrong. Sorry," Elethil managed, clearing his throat. Then: "When are we leaving tonight?"

"I had thought to come get you and Pel and the others around four," Aldan answered.

"Time 's'it now?"

"Two o'clock by the bells."

Elethil made a soft, pained noise, squeezing his eyes shut. After a moment, he murmured, "I've got to sleep this off."

"Think I will, too," Peloren said, wearily. "Sorry, Aldan."

"I'll walk you back then," Aldan sighed. And he did, mostly helping Elethil, though occasionally, he would reach and steady Peloren a bit, who managed otherwise by using the wall for balance. Although Peloren's room was closer, he insisted on walking a few doors down to see Elethil to bed first, and waited, leaning on the wall outside, while Aldan helped his friend get the tunic and boots off, and then forced him to lie on his side, just to be safe. He also took care to position the chamber pot just below Elethil's head, in case it should be needed.

"Valar, how much did he drink?" Aldan asked him, once he had emerged and closed the door.

"The liquor, you mean?"

"I mean everything."

"I don't remember. More than I, I think," Peloren replied.

"How much did you have?"

"I... don't remember, other than the liquor. But I'm sure that was just the two flasks. And he had more," Peloren replied, and the older man shook his head once more in disbelief.

"You were lucky you didn't kill yourselves," he muttered. "That stuff would fell a troll, I swear!"

"S'pose we were," Peloren murmured. It was perhaps a little too close to the truth, for when they reached his door, Aldan leaned an arm on the doorjamb and laid a hand on Peloren's shoulder, glancing up and down the hall to make certain there were none to overhear. Peloren sighed. "Please, Aldan, I only want to sleep," he pleaded, wearily.

"Just listen a moment and I'll let you go to bed," his friend replied. "You may be my better with horses and a few other things, blood not least, but I haven't been twenty for six years now. I was once, though, and so I know there's stupid drunk, and then there's you and Elethil. I heard that what's-his-name—Andrar?"

"Andrahar," Peloren supplied woodenly.

"Andrahar—all my life in the South Docks, I still can't manage the names! Sindarin's work enough for me, I fear," he sighed. "Anyway, I've heard he is back—it's all over the keep. And it sounds like there's some that're happier about that than others. Not that they're fond of this Andrahar fellow, but there're plenty of lads as have it in for you, whatever the Armsmaster and others keep telling them about brotherhood. There're plenty of them that want you under their boots, and it's hard enough to keep their heels off your neck even if you keep your nose out of a drinking glass. Once you're under the table, it's over, because then you get a taste for the floor and tend to stay there." Aldan paused, took in Peloren's bleary-eyed look, and sighed. "What I'm saying, Pel, is that you want to be able to push back when there's trouble. If you're drunk like you are now, you won't be able to."

Aldan straightened up then, and gave him a bracing clap on either shoulder, then drew him forward to stand right before the door. "I'll have a look in on you both later. If you feel up to it, you can join us tonight. If not, do the sensible thing and get some sleep."

With that, he left, and Peloren, after a moment, reached for the door knob. His room looked much more a mess than it had earlier, though Peloren blessed Aldan for having at some point got the chamber pot emptied out and the floor cleaned so it did not smell quite as bad as it might have otherwise. But his sheets were rumpled, and they reeked of sweat and liquor and horse. With a sigh, Peloren opened the window to let some air in, and then, heedless of the stench, collapsed back onto his bed and slept.


Meanwhile, later that evening, two other young men faced each other across a chess board, one of them idly running a finger about the rim of a half-empty goblet of wine as he contemplated the pieces. The other contemplated his friend as he straddled the chair he had turned about, and he rested his chin upon arms that were folded atop the back of his seat.

"You've grown vicious at this since I've been away," Imrahil said at length, and flashed Andrahar a grin. "Are you certain you haven't been playing with my soon-to-be brother-in-law?"

Andrahar snorted. "He's seen my game. I was playing with your sister once and he walked in on it. Took one look at the board, got that slightly disdainful curl to his lip, then kissed your sister's hand, moved a captain, and set me up for checkmate in five. So he claimed then," Andrahar added. "He probably was right, but we never finished the game nor did he ever ask me for another. Likely he thought it not worth his time."

"You never told me about this," Imrahil exclaimed, and tsked at him. Andrahar raised a brow, and then, in part out of irritation with the ringing sound Imrahil's attention to the goblet was creating, reached and laid his hand flat over the Heir's.

"I never told you about it because we'd hardly said our hellos, however... improper... when you fell ill, Imri." Imrahil blinked, a little surprised, perhaps, by the intensity of his tone, but then he cocked his head at Andrahar, and after a moment, a smile spread over his face and his eyes softened so that Andrahar's heart gave a painful little thump.

"You're still worried about that, aren't you?" the Heir said gently. "Even with the Elves' assurance I can shield myself now?"

"Especially with the Elves' assurance," Andrahar growled, and quickly bit off the host of uncomplimentary things he might have said of them. For despite fears of Imrahil relapsing, for the moment at least, it seemed they had done as promised and returned Imrahil hale and himself to those who loved him.

The Heir's appearance last night had been unexpected, though the moment Imrahil had come bounding down to the Swan Knights' table to embrace him, and murmur into his ear, "Merry Yule, Andra!", he had realized the precise, literal truth of Adrahil's answer to him the evening before, and understood there must have been some instruction from Imrahil to keep his coming quiet, the better to make an entrance. It was a gift Andrahar could hardly complain of, though a part of him had been exasperated with such games, frustrated.

The more so, indeed, because before so many watching eyes, he had had to be careful, to watch his words and his hands, to keep his face from showing too much. He could not say what was needed, though in point of fact, he was not sure it was words he had been wanting: there was a need in him to touch and see and know Imrahil was really well, and equally to show his gladness and the great, aching relief to have him safely back. But none of it could he do before others, not even with Imrahil unabashedly clinging like a limpet to him. It was too much, and too... personal, intimate, to be shared like that and since then, the moment seemed to have passed when he might somehow bring it all up.

And so he sighed instead, released Imrahil's hand and pushed a rook forward to challenge the knight that hovered menacingly about his queen.

"Such becoming gratitude toward them," Imrahil teased, then, as he considered his options. "Truly, though, I haven't had any trouble for weeks and weeks. I promise, 'tis not a problem anymore."

"And what may happen when you return to the lists and training the day after tomorrow?" Andrahar demanded. "You know what first week is like. What if you become... distracted?"

"I won't. It's... well, it does not quite work like that, though I do not know how to explain it to you, exactly," Imrahil said, frowning for being so tongue-tied. He waved a hand after a moment, dismissing the matter. "Anyway, I have been practicing: not so hard as the esquires, perhaps, but I have not neglected my lessons." Imrahil moved a pawn.

"Interesting," Andrahar grunted, by way of comment on that move and to gain some ground to think on what he had just been told.

"Indeed," Imrahil replied, lacing his fingers together and leaning his elbows on the table, so he could rest his chin upon his hands. "It should be quite interesting this year, now that you will be teaching lessons in swordsmanship," he continued, shifting their conversation away from the chessboard. "I'm rather looking forward to it."

"I am not," Andrahar replied, rejecting the idea of recalling his knight. Perhaps the queen herself...?

"Why not?" A pause, and when Andrahar did not immediately respond, Imrahil's tone grew quieter, more hesitant. "Andra, is this about Peloren and Elethil?"

With a sigh, the young Swan Knight picked up one of the pawns he had captured and began toying with it absent-mindedly. "I told the Armsmaster and Captain Valandil and the others I would strive to do as they asked—teach them well and come to terms with them."

"And you will," Imrahil interjected confidently.

"I don't know about that," Andrahar replied, and shook his head, thinking of that encounter in the hall. He had just come from a few hours' practice and had been fairly pleased to find that his timing in a certain form was returning to him. He had had, therefore, no reason to feel broody or irritated, but one look at Peloren, and... For just a second, the urge to strike had seized him—perhaps because they had begun by colliding?—and then a loathing had taken hold. Peloren's behavior had calmed the first impulse, but it had but increased his dislike, fearful as his conduct had been. It had not seemed to him very becoming of an esquire, and if Andrahar in fact was of the opinion Peloren ought to be afraid of him, considering his offenses, this was not Harad.

And since it is not, and the masters want us to reconcile ourselves to each other, shouldn't he be less concerned for himself? It was not as if Peloren had been the one helpless in the hands of his enemies, after all. And while Andrahar had not seen Elethil yet, his hopes were not high that his reaction would be very different, or that Elethil would be an improvement on Peloren for cringing.

"You will," Imrahil insisted, and it was his turn to reach across the table and lay a hand over his friend's, halting the agitated handling of the pawn. "If they have paid their debt—"

"Have they?" Andrahar interjected. "Peloren at least seems to expect worse. I confess, Imri, I'm not sure whether I should be insulted by that or pleased."

"Why would you be pleased?" Andrahar sighed inwardly. As if that question alone were not telling enough! There were moments when Imrahil seemed to forget that at the end of the day, his friend had not grown up to Gondor's ways. Often, this pleased Andrahar, who wearied of having his strangeness thrown in his face day in and day out; but there were times when such forgetfulness cut the other way, alas. As now!

"Because if this were Harad, there would be worse and he ought to fear it. And me! Well, assuming things were there as they are here, and we had some reason to meet as enemies rather than as errant slave and lord," Andrahar allowed. But then he frowned. "Of course, if we were enemies in Harad, flinching like that would lessen him. 'Tis a slavish behavior." He let out a hissing sigh, exclaiming in frustration: "Everything is turned about here!"

"Then you don't really want him to be afraid of you?" Imrahil asked, clearly perplexed.

"I don't know, Imri!" Andrahar replied curtly, letting a touch of irritation color his tone. "All I know is that I am not looking forward to this term."

Imrahil sighed. "I'm sorry, Andra," he murmured, releasing Andrahar to lean his head in his hands tiredly, ere tucking them under his chin once more to stare at the chessboard. "I'm sorry I got everyone into this mess."

"Don't start," Andrahar warned sharply. "We've discussed that already, and besides, your fault was not of the same order."

"Maybe not, but it put everything in motion," Imrahil replied, sadly. "And however foolish I have been, you know I would never have wished for you to be harmed, especially not for my sake."

At this, Andrahar shifted a bit in his seat, uncertain and uncomfortable, caught between annoyance with the Heir's ability to blame himself for everything and his more usual amazed admiration for the easy, artless way Imrahil could say these things and look a man straight in the eye without the least self-consciousness. And of course, hard on the heels of that latter feeling were familiar others, and he firmly thrust those down, regretting, in that moment, his usual habit of straddling his chair, for it made it hard to hide certain reactions...

"Strange reservations you have, considering I am your bodyguard," he retorted gruffly, and as hoped, that bit of dry humor got a smile from his friend. The edge of friction between them seemed to dissipate, as Imrahil chuckled, saying:

"I must apply me to philosophy, it seems, and learn to be more consistent! Truly, though, Andra," Imrahil said earnestly, "although I have paid such debts as the prince my father deemed I owed, still, I cannot help but feel I owe something still for having been such a fool. If I can help you in any way this term with all of this, you have only to ask. I would be glad to do it."

Andrahar grunted, lowering his eyes to the board once more. "Talk in the hall last night puts me somewhere between a cur and a gelded lapdog—everyone marvels that I should come back so loyally to you after Harad and everything else. Half of the court wonders how long it will be ere nature shows itself and I flay Peloren and Elethil alive and hang the skins high, and I would not be surprised if the other half were taking bets on the matter!" Imrahil winced. Andrahar simply shook his head.

"Even your charm can do only so much, and it is not your battle in the end anyway, but mine. I shall have to fight it as best I can," he replied heavily. Then seeking some escape from this conversation, his eye fell upon a captain, and he glanced down the board. Smiling evilly with sudden inspiration, he moved the piece. "Checkmate in four," he said, just a little smugly as he rose. And on impulse, feeling rather daring, he caught Imrahil's hand and kissed it. "Good night, Imri. Until tomorrow."

Understanding dawned upon the Heir just as he reached the door, and so it was to Imrahil's appreciative chortles that Andrahar, spirits lifted by the sound, departed.

~~~

Author's Note: I'd like to thank Lyllyn for coaching me on the finer points of depicting the hangover of someone on the verge of alcohol poisoning, and for suggesting borage tea. Wikipedia provided the alternate name "starflower."


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