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5
The Road to Elostirion

The next day, Peloren woke suddenly. Not due to any dream that he could recall or any fear—it was rather as if his body had decided he had slept enough, and so simply sent him hurtling from slumber to waking life, like a diver who surfaces suddenly into the air and light. Almost immediately, he was struck by the scent of his bedsheets, and the chill of the room that made him glad he had not bothered to change into his nightclothes. Sitting up, he pushed his hands through his hair, then blew upon them to warm them before he rose, went to the window, and shut it. Standing made him aware that he needed to relieve himself—again; to judge by the chamber pot's contents, apparently he had got up sometime during the night to do so, though he did not remember this.

Once done, he stared at his bed, then plucked at his tunic and sniffed. Another day in the laundry, he thought, and sighed as he went to his clothespress. Fortunately, he had still one more day ere the start of the term's torments.

Perhaps an hour later, having taken a quick bath, eaten a little, and stripped his sheets from the bed to add to the basket of laundry, he made his way over to the washroom. The lasses there greeted him—they knew him well, along with all the other esquires, for unlike knights, esquires were required, at home, to do their own laundry. It was yet another way of reinforcing the fact that being a knight required one to know how to properly care for all one's equipment, so as not to disgrace one's brother-knights.

There were a few other esquires present, all of them huddled about the large tub on the east side of the room. Peloren's jaw tightened when he realized two of them were Celdir and Torlas, but he recognized Teilin and Aldan as well.

"Oh ho! Look who's alive after all," Teilin exclaimed when he noticed him, and he elbowed Aldan. "Master Two Flask himself. How's your head?"

"It was not two for me by myself," Peloren replied a bit stiffly, particularly when Celdir raised a skeptical brow and Torlas snickered. "And my head is fine, thank you."

"No offense, lad," Teilin said immediately, and smiled. "But I fear you'll go down to fame in the Third Company after last night, you and Elethil both."

"Just what did you say?" Peloren demanded of Aldan.

"Nothing but the truth," Aldan replied serenely, and Teilin supplied:

"He told us that the two of you somehow managed to choke down two of the Harp and Sails' finest swill. I didn't think it could be done."

"Well, I don't recommend it," Peloren replied, as he dumped his laundry in with the rest.

"Harp and Sails, is it? I've heard of this, I think. Khandian liquor?" Celdir asked, and shuddered. "It sounds foul, but I suppose it's appropriate, given what the South has brought us lately."

At that, Peloren sighed, and squeezed his eyes shut a moment, scarcely aware of the rather uncomfortable silence that had fallen. A hand landed on his shoulder, and then Celdir was asking, "Are you all right? You look like you're still half under the table!"

"Maybe I am," Peloren replied then, a little sharply, ere he said, "Can we please just let it lie?"

At that, Torlas snorted. "You're the one who drank the stuff!"

"I don't mean that, I mean—" Peloren stopped then. Mayhap I truly am drunk still, he thought, for he really had no desire in him to have this conversation, for with Andrahar back in Dol Amroth, a confrontation with Celdir over his irksome habit of harping on the Southron's unwelcome presence was something he could do without.

But: "What do you mean, then?" Torlas was asking.

"Nothing," he replied, as he grabbed a shirt and began scrubbing.

Unfortunately, it seemed Celdir was not ready to let it lie. "It did not sound like 'nothing,' to me," he said, and gave Peloren a queer look. "What is it?"

"Just leave it, Celdir," Peloren urged.

"Look, if I have offended in some way—"

"Celdir," Aldan broke in then, "let him be, lad, it's holidays after all."

"So it is. And I'd not end them badly, so let's have it, Pel," Celdir insisted, shooting Aldan a glare, before turning once more to Peloren. "What matter?"

For a long while, Peloren said nothing, wishing vainly that he had gone back to bed instead of rising. But even as he frantically sought an excuse or at least some way of softening the complaint, Aldan spoke again.

"I don't see that it needs much explanation, Celdir. There's no one in the Fledglings' Wing hasn't heard you go on largely about the cursed Southrons and everything to do with them whenever there's someone to hear it," he said quietly, and paused a moment ere he concluded: "Most lads learn young to stop pissing in their own sheets; let it be and stop throwing what's dead done with in Peloren's face."

Blunt words, and bald as the South Docks drawl they were delivered in, yet blunt words served but to sharpen the point. The silence was leaden now, and Peloren was aware of the resentful, disdainful look that both Celdir and Torlas were giving Aldan, who merely stared back, seemingly unperturbed. Which was hardly fair, Peloren thought as he struggled to think of something to say, something that might salvage the situation. Something...!

But Celdir beat him to it. "This is not your affair," he started to say, but Aldan cut him off.

"Nor is it yours—so leave off."

"Now just a minute—" Torlas began, at which point Teilin shook his head and said:

"The man's right, lad; give it a rest, for Valar's sake!"

"You forget yourself," Celdir snapped, and then rounded on Peloren again, his face dark with anger, and he lifted his chin slightly, eyeing Peloren expectantly. "Well?" he demanded, and Peloren knew right well what was meant. Will you let this peasant no-blood speak for you?

It was a question Peloren wished he had a ready answer to, and preferably one that would calm the snakes' nest he had been seeking so to avoid and which boiled now all about him. "Celdir," he managed after a moment, then hesitated, feeling caught in a vise, for he could feel Teilin and Aldan watching him intently across the way, feel their silent claim on his loyalty that strove with Torlas' and Celdir's expectant regard. And there is still the matter of Andrahar and debts, all the rest aside! "It's not to say I'm pleased with Andrahar being here, only—"

"Only what? That you agree with him?" Celdir asked, jerking his head at Aldan. "For I do not see there is anything to debate, otherwise, as... plain... spoken as our brother is in his opinion."

"Can we not simply agree to speak no more on this?" he asked, desperately. Celdir snorted. Torlas muttered something that sounded much like, "There's Southern friendship for you!"

"If you like, then we'll speak no more," Celdir replied frostily, and with a nod, he and Torlas both scooped their laundry out of the tub and departed to go spread it to dry. Peloren stifled a groan and leaned against the rim of the washtub, staring fixedly into the water. Wonderful! he thought, sarcastically. Now I can be hated from two sides instead of one! He doubted Celdir, after his lofty disdain for the 'pranksters' who had plagued him and Elethil all the past term, would stoop to stealing his work or inking his clothes or anything of that sort. But there were other ways of making one's displeasure felt, several of which left bruises...

"Pel?" Aldan's voice interrupted his unhappy reverie just then.

"Did you have to say that?" Peloren asked, without looking up.

"It's nothing that wasn't on your face lad, and that one notices such like," Aldan pointed out, before he added more firmly: "And it needed to be said: he's an insufferable boor on the best of days, and it's not been the best of days for a long while now."

"You know he and his friends will be after Elethil and me, too, now?" Peloren demanded, glancing up to eye the older man, who cocked his head at him.

"A bandit and a bursar can't go all the way down the road to Elostirion together, Pel," he said after a moment. "And you're neither the one nor the other anyway: you are an esquire of Dol Amroth. Save your sighs for the lasses; do not waste them on a lad like Celdir!"

"It's not that I care for Celdir or Torlas or their friends, Aldan, you know that," Peloren shot back forcefully. "But I have enough enemies! And with Andrahar back and set over me—!"

Teilin and Aldan exchanged looks, ere Aldan sighed. "Pel," he said, chiding gently, "you were drunk yesterday and it's left you querulous and womanish. This is nothing so bad as you make it out to be."

"And I suppose you would know! Have you heard what Haradrim do to their enemies?" Peloren demanded.

"I've seen what they do to their enemies," Aldan replied, quietly, a rather flinty cast to his eyes as he brushed lightly at the scar upon his cheek. Peloren felt the heat rush to his face then. Idiot! he berated himself, and felt the blush deepen when the other said, firmly: "Get yourself up off the floor, Pel."

He was right. Peloren knew he was right, but the other's tone stung, and he felt torn still over the argument with Celdir, feeling much abused by all sides. And so rather than admit it, he simply drew himself up, and said coolly, "I appreciated your help yesterday, but I've no need for you to be my minder. I can attend to my own business. So leave it alone: it is none of your affair, no more than it is Celdir's." So he said and looked down his nose at Aldan, the habits of his upbringing coming then to the fore, for a lord of Gondor, as his father had taught, need not answer to those beneath him.

Aldan stiffened at that, and Teilin's face was utterly still. But then Aldan grunted softly, even as he wrung out a pair of trousers and hung them over the side of the tub a moment. "As you like it," he replied, and then put his head down and attended to his laundry even as Peloren opened his mouth to reply.

"Aldan—"

"Friends we are, lad, if you'll allow it," Aldan cut him off, "but if you don't want to hear from me on this, best you see to the wash right now."

Peloren hesitated, feeling his heart sink still further, but then he simply obeyed. In truth, he had not the stomach for the moment for another argument, and he did have other things he needed to do that day besides washing.

Still, it was quiet in the laundry after that, for neither Aldan nor Teilin spoke again.


Some while later, having left his laundry to dry under the watchful eyes of the laundresses, Peloren knocked on Elethil's door. Somewhat to his surprise, it opened to reveal Elethil, his hair still rather wet and clinging to his face.

"Good morning," Peloren offered, and gave his friend a searching look. "How are you?" For Elethil still seemed somewhat weary, and with a bit of shadow under his eyes. But:

"Better," Elethil replied. "You?"

"Fine," Peloren lied. "Could we talk a moment?" Elethil shrugged and swept an arm toward his room. Peloren entered, but did not sit, too anxious to settle. Elethil shut the door, then went and sank down onto his bed, where lay a few pieces of armor and a needle and thread stuck into one of the leather straps. But Elethil set aside his repairs and he leaned his elbows on his knees as he gazed up at Peloren.

"What is it?" he asked.

"News good and bad, I suppose," Peloren replied, and commenced to tell of the argument—both arguments—in the washroom. Predictably, Elethil did not take it well.

"Varda's darkened stars!" he swore viciously when Peloren had finished the tale. "So now Celdir and his lads will be on us as well!"

"As like as not," Peloren said glumly, then gave a small, helpless gesture. "On the other hand, 'tis all endurance anyway, is it not? Whether he cozens us or not, he's ever been one to bear."

Elethil grunted. "Mayhap so, but every shoulder has to dip sometimes. The masters, sergeants, Faldion's lads, Andrahar, and now Celdir and his lot, too..." He trailed off and shook his head, then gave Peloren a doubtful look. "Faldion's lads are bad enough; but you know how Celdir can be. You remember how he was with Andrahar."

Peloren's mouth thinned to a tight line as he nodded. Not, of course, that he could claim to be any better in truth. Not, given his own offenses, and yet... And yet, he conceded. Certainly, they had all, over the years, pulled pranks on Imrahil's humorless friend and generally treated him poorly. Peloren had been responsible for several long nights in the laundry for Andrahar, and he supposed his own recent close acquaintance with that damp abode might be accounted only justice. Celdir, though...

"I suppose I always did wonder why Valyon did not think to pick Celdir at least, if not Torlas or Iordel when he gathered the rest of us," Peloren said slowly.

"Because he's a faithless, tarty popinjay who would have found a way out, likely, for fear of getting caught, and Valyon knew it," Elethil replied bitterly. Peloren raised a brow.

"You're in fine form today," he remarked, a little startled by his friend's vehemence. Though perhaps I ought not to be, he thought, chagrined, recalling Aldan's rebuke.

Elethil hung his head. "Forgive me," he said after a moment, exhaling audibly. Peloren waved a hand.

"Never mind that, Elya. We'll bear up somehow."

To that, Elethil only grunted in a rather non-committal manner, ere he asked, "Was that all the news?"

"Well... no. Not exactly," Peloren said, hesitating a bit.

"What then?"

"I've been thinking, since Aldan and I quarreled, about what the Armsmaster told us on Yule: that we should try to come to terms with Andrahar," Peloren replied. Elethil sighed, closing his eyes as if in pain, and Peloren hastened onward. "I know 'tis no happy thought, but listen a moment, Elya! 'Twill get no better if we wait; we ought to try to speak with him, to come to some accommodation."

Elethil lowered his eyes a moment, but then he nodded. "I had given some thought to this as well, and you are right: we ought to do it before we are put under his instruction. But how should we even approach him? He's Haradric—how does one go about settling a score like this in Harad without getting repayment in kind?"

"I don't know. But we know someone who could tell us."

Elethil frowned a moment, clearly running through the other esquires in his head. It took him a moment, before he gave Peloren a sharp, startled look, and asked: "Imrahil?" And when Peloren nodded, Elethil bit his lip. "I don't know, Pel. Imrahil has always held Andrahar dear. Even before the Prince agreed to let Andrahar make a trial as an esquire, you remember Imri always brought him along, even right out onto the field. Or he did as soon as Andrahar was well enough for it. You know he holds him close as his own blood. He may not wish to see us."

"But we would be trying to come to terms with Andrahar: surely that would please him. We need help, Elya, and who better than Imrahil? He knows Andrahar, and he's always been fascinated with the Haradrim, after all."

"Valar only know why," Elethil sighed, but then shrugged. "Let us ask him, then. I suppose we might need to anyway: Andrahar has probably been abroad since dawn; Imrahil at least might be able to tell us where and when to find him!"


So it was that the two of them went down the hall to knock on Imrahil's door, the Heir having abandoned his more luxurious suite to return to the Fledgling's Wing. And being Imrahil, when he at length answered the door, he looked as if he had only just risen, though it was mid-morning.

"Peloren. Elethil," he said, and then quickly covered a yawn, though he did not quite succeed in covering over his surprise. But then: "Well, I suppose this is a stroke of luck. Come in, please," he invited, and so they did, exchanging a cautiously hopeful, if still rather wary, look between themselves. Imrahil at least seemed not displeased to see them, though why he should apparently have wanted to remained a mystery.

"I suppose you two might as well take the bed; they really should let us have two chairs," the young prince said, waving them to their seat, even as he dragged the chair from his desk around and set it facing them. Imrahil sat, crossing one leg over the other and clasping his hands about his knee. "Before I say my piece, what brings you?"

Peloren, with a glance at Elethil, replied, "We learned Andrahar had returned two days ago, my lord—"

"'Imrahil,'" Imrahil interrupted, lifting a finger. "As of Yuletide, I am an esquire again, do not forget!"

"Ah. Of course," Peloren quickly replied, and then pressed on. "Since he is back, and we needs must speak with him, we had hoped you might help us. You know the Haradrim better than we do: how should we approach him?"

"Well, for one thing, I should say do better to hide your fear from him," Imrahil replied promptly, and both Elethil and Peloren looked at him in surprise. The Heir smiled slightly. "We talked last night, Andra and I. If it is any measure of consolation, he is as uncertain about the two of you as you are of him. He did mention your encounter, though, Peloren, and the one thing that he would say about it was that he did not care for the cringing, for it struck him as, well, slavish."

"He surprised me," Peloren protested, feeling a flash of shame over that incident, though also of irritation. "I wasn't expecting to walk into him!"

"Of course not. But you did wish to know how to approach him, and that at least he mentioned. As for other things... I do not know what to tell you, for he is conflicted himself. Harad's customs differ, but then, he has never been a very conventional Haradrim," Imrahil said, then paused, and by the slight, fond smile and the distant look in his eyes, it seemed clear he was remembering some private jest or incident. But it lasted only a moment: shaking his head, Imrahil finished, "Therefore, I think you should not be overmuch concerned with approaching him as one of the Haradrim. He lives here now anyway. Just say what you think needs saying when you see him, as you would if you apologized to any other brother-knight."

"I see," Peloren said, deflating a little, for he realized he had been hoping for some rather more substantial assistance, some assured way of going about things. Still, that was no doubt foolish, and Imrahil had give them one piece of advice at least. "Thank you, Imrahil." And beside him, Elethil nodded his thanks.

"I would be glad to see the three of you reconciled. Or just conciled, I suppose," Imrahil said, with another of those slight grins. Peloren grunted, and Elethil sighed softly for the truth of that, but Imrahil continued, "And I should like to reconcile ourselves as well. I owe you an apology."

This got a pair of startled, uncomprehending stares. "What apology?" Peloren asked at length.

"The same I made to Andra: I acted a fool, and if I had not, the whole situation might not have arisen. Valyon might not have taken it into his head to thrash Andra, you might not have got caught up in it… it would certainly have spared both Andra and you considerable pain and discomfort," Imrahil replied. "For all that, I am sorry."

For a wonder, it was Elethil who managed to find his tongue first. "You don’t owe us anything, Imrahil…"

"But I think I do. My father at least believes I have some responsibility—I didn’t spend a year at sea on his whim!" Imrahil countered. "And I should not like to set myself against his judgment a second time. Well," he amended, with a charming, roguish smile, "not insofar as I am an esquire, anyway. He shall have to put up with me otherwise, I fear. What say you?" he asked.

And so saying, he gazed upon them with that particular, earnest expression that almost never failed to move his opponents. Peloren could feel his own resistance wavering, for clearly, to refuse him would wound him. And so he reached out a hand for Imrahil to grasp, and when he had, Peloren said, "That I think we need say no more." Imrahil smiled.

"Then we shall not," he replied simply, as he released Peloren to clasp Elethil’s hand. The Heir’s guests rose, then, and he with them. "I’m sure Andra is off practicing, but if you would seek him out this evening, then go to the knights’ quarters in the north hall, and it is the second door from the end of the eastern wing."

"Thank you, Imrahil."

"Good luck," Imrahil said frankly. And with that parting wish—or was it warning?—Peloren and Elethil departed.
And perhaps that farewell had more effect than Imrahil had intended. After their visit to the prince, the two esquires went their separate ways to chores they had still to do ere the holiday ended. Lunch was set at noon, and Andrahar must have come late or not at all to the hall. For their part, Elethil and Peloren, desirous of avoiding newly acquired enemies, took their bread and meat and slipped away to eat on the back step of the kitchen. They sat there in the doorway and ate silently, feeling the heat of the night hearth at their backs, for it was kept stoked for hot water and stock and other such needfuls as could be made with but little oversight. Then it was back to work 'til supper, which was rather subdued at the esquires' tables.

Andrahar was present for the evening meal—he sat near the end of one of the knights' tables, his dark head bowed. He did not appear to converse with anyone, though no doubt he listened. But he ate quickly and left early, and Peloren and Elethil, who were but halfway through their supper, exchanged uncertain looks. Does he go to his room or out somewhere else? The question passed plainly between them.

Nor did they learn the answer. For as if on some unspoken agreement, as soon as they had finished, they simply returned to their rooms where Peloren, in anticipation of the morrow and after having checked carefully to make certain nothing was amiss, crawled into bed.

Later, we shall seek him out, he told himself, as he drifted off to sleep.

It was not the last time he would think that.


For first week was enough to put anyone off his more leisurely purposes, or even some that might be more urgent than that. Given the dread that hung over the notion of confronting Andrahar to apologize to him, it was perhaps not terribly surprising that as the days of sweat and effort and exhaustion dragged by, somehow, there never seemed to be time enough to pursue him in the evenings or any other time.

Not that Andrahar was difficult to find: as the Armsmaster's assistant, he was, as often as not, the one walking the lines of toiling esquires while the Armsmaster lectured or worked with another group. He would drop a lad here and there for some fault or take one to task for poor form. Or he would count off the turns on the rails Master Ornendil assigned sometimes when he was displeased with a squad's performance. There was nothing quite like walking ship rails in the harbor, in winter, with the wet and cold and occasional frost that made matters ever so much more difficult and falls that much more painful.

Andrahar would stand by, wrapped in his cloak and a few extra layers, his breath rising in steam as he watched and criticized and as often as not ended by running them back up from the docks to the stables at break-neck speed. Were Peloren not so weary, he might have truly loathed the Southron, who, despite his much shorter stride, somehow managed to keep to the head of the pack of esquires without seeming to suffer much for it.

Thus first week passed, and other than such confrontations as might occur between an esquire and a captain's assistant, not a word passed among Elethil and Peloren and Andrahar.

"We must seek him out," Peloren said when the week was out, and he and Elethil sat wearily cleaning their armor. For the final day of torment, the Armsmaster had had them take the field against an unmounted company of battle-hardened knights in a lengthy skirmish to capture the flags of the respective companies. Given the gap in experience and the exhaustion of the esquires, Peloren thought they had not done too badly. Celdir, who had been in command of his squad, had even put one of the knights' companies on the defensive for a time.

But it had not lasted, alas, and in any case, it had been a long, hard morning of chasing through muddy, ice-encrusted fields, in full armor and with their gear on their backs, and even that had not been the end of it. Lunch had been war rations wolfed down right there in the meadow, and then they had been sent off on a shoreline run before being allowed, at long last, to limp home and collapse. And, of course, take care of their mail and armor, which had needed much time in the sand barrels and careful polishing.

"I suppose we must," Elethil conceded, wincing a bit as he cracked his spine. "But when?"

When, indeed? "Soon."

Elethil grunted, then sighed softly. "Soon," he repeated, and bent once more over his armor.

~ 0 ~



It might have comforted Peloren and Elethil to know that the subject of their pained resolutions had his own troubles to deal with. As were all who were intimately involved in the esquires' training that first week, Andrahar was up well before dawn to break his fast with the other officers, sergeants, and assistants, and spend a bit of time preparing for the ordeal of the day. Never mind that he had not as much running to do as the esquires did, he still had a good distance to go with them, and now of course it had to look effortless. Esquires, at least, were permitted to give a face to their weariness; not so, those who trained them.

When he was not toiling through mud and strand, he had to keep a sharp eye out on the lists to catch mistakes, or demonstrate the proper form, and often enough, Ornendil gave him those lads who were struggling most to work with on the more basic moves. Evenings were more or less given over to punitive or remedial sessions, so that he ate late, and as a consequence Andrahar was rarely among his own company. Not even for sword drills, since his time was given over to instruction and its struggles all that first week, which rather had him fretting. It was no doubt fortunate that the esquires were kept too weary to notice any slips he might make.

The esquires were therefore not the only ones glad to see the end of first week. The officers of the Swan Knights, commissioned and otherwise, settled into a steadier routine and, out of sight and earshot of their flock of fledglings, breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.

"It is always good to be done with it. No one enjoys first week," Illian told Andrahar when he came to collect the young knight at the end of that last day, so that he could meet with Master Harthil, who oversaw instruction in languages. For with the return to a more regular schedule, the more scholarly pursuits were taken up again, meaning that Andrahar had to begin preparing for such as well.

The language instructor, however, had not been in court during the Yule holidays, so this was the first opportunity Andrahar had been given to learn something of his other assignment as an instructor in Haradric. And truth be told, he was both curious and slightly anxious about the meeting, though he strove not to let it show as he walked at Illian's side towards the Master of Records' office.

For Andrahar had met Master Harthil before, if only twice, and perhaps 'met' was too strong. He had encountered him before: once upon his arrival in Dol Amroth, when he had first been brought before Adrahil, and a second time, in passing, before ever he had been permitted to enter the ranks of the esquires.

The first time, the man had been sitting in the Prince's dayroom, working, it seemed, upon some missive, as if he were a junior secretary to the Prince. The Prince, who had desired to be introduced to the Haradric stray his son had unexpectedly brought home with him, that he might judge for himself the wisdom of allowing Andrahar to remain in the Heir's company, had bidden Andrahar enter and be seated in very good Haradric and proceeded to question him, politely but firmly, about his past and his abilities. All the while, Harthil had remained in place, apparently occupied with some assigned chore and seemingly oblivious to the proceedings.

Andrahar had assumed at the time, being far less familiar in those days with the customs of Gondor, that the man was a deaf-mute, such as high Haradric lords might employ as chamber servants when delicate matters needed to be discussed freely. Not until Adrahil had remarked upon his empty teacup, and Harthil had risen and, without any explicit instruction, brought the pot over to pour for the Prince and his guest, had Andrahar realized he had been able to understand them.

Their second encounter had been occasioned by the behest of the head scribe of Dol Amroth, who, having heard from the Prince, no doubt, of Andrahar's linguistic abilities, had desired to learn whether he might be of use in assisting in the compilation of a more comprehensive volume on the dialects and languages of Harad. To that end, Andrahar had been summoned to give a demonstration of his proficiency in several of the major dialects of Harad, and a number of the minor ones, as well as the royal dialect of Khand.

The head scribe had seemed pleased enough with him by the end of the day, and indeed, that work had eventually occupied much of the time that other esquires devoted simply to learning languages. But all that had been still to come when the scribe had dismissed him that day, and on his way out of the scribe's office, Andrahar had passed Harthil on his way in. Their eyes had met, and recognition flickered briefly between them. Harthil had given him a look then that had put a streetwise lad on his guard, though Harthil had swiftly glanced away and assumed an expression of abstracted scholarly distraction.

But that one look had been enough to plant the suspicion that the man was more than he seemed. He had learned later from Imrahil that Harthil personally offered instruction in Khandian and Haradric to the esquires, and also that he was a member of Adrahil's staff.

"What does he do?" Andrahar had asked.

"Oh, this and that. Scribing, among other things, and he knows much of the customs of Harad and its history with Gondor," Imrahil had said airily, though Andrahar had got the distinct impression that his friend and lord had not desired to speak further on the matter, and so he had let it go.

Now, as Illian ushered him into his office, Master Harthil rose from his seat and the language tutor and Andrahar spent a moment eyeing each other. A grizzled, thin man with a bit of a squint, Master Harthil was clearly no warrior, but Andrahar nevertheless felt wary of him. For it had occurred to him, after his conversation with Imrahil, that there must be many things that a man so gifted in tongues as Harthil apparently was, and so knowledgeable of Andrahar's people, might do on behalf of the royal house of Dol Amroth...

"Master Harthil, I apologize that we are late," Illian said, and the scholar had inclined his head.

"No need for apologies, Master Illian. It is good of you to arrange this meeting for us both. I would I had been available sooner, but I fear I had other business," he said, graciously. Then he turned to Andrahar, who made him a polite bow. The language tutor smiled slightly. "I do not believe," he said, in fluent Haradric, "that we have been formally introduced before." He held out his hand, and when Andrahar grasped it, switched suddenly back to Westron. "'Andrahar,' is it? 'The one drawn to the light'? Are you a pilgrim then?"

And there came again that incongruously penetrating look that made Andrahar's spine stiffen reflexively as he recognized then the other's purpose. Which was why he answered, somewhat flatly, "If ever I was one, I am settled here now. And 'tis true, we have not been introduced, though I have seen you before, Master Harthil."

"Indeed, you have," came the dispassionate reply, along with another shrewd, measuring look, ere Harthil let the matter drop. "I did not expect to have an assistant this term. I would I had been here during Yule, so that we might have had more time to discuss the matter, but..." He waved a hand dismissively. "I understand that you learn quickly. It will be good to have help with the Haradric, and I am told you have a fair grasp of Khandian as well, should you ever wish to teach it."

"Thank you, sir, but I think it would profit us all if I kept to Haradric," Andrahar said quickly, for though not given to sentimentality of any sort, Khandian left a bad taste in his mouth after his time enslaved to Ulantoris.

"As you wish. But let us speak of your duties in the coming days," Harthil said, as the three of them settled into chairs, and Andrahar last of all, out of deference to the masters. Feeling out of his depth, he clasped his hands together to still them, as he glanced between Harthil, Illian, and (as unobtrusively as possible) the door uncomfortably at his back.

"You have not sat for any instruction in languages," Harthil was saying. "You had no need to, but this leaves you without any idea of what happens in a lecture hall. Fortunately, it is a straightforward task: your pupils have all had at least two years of study in Haradric. They need only to practice it, and particularly to practice speaking it. Converse with them, see that they read the assigned texts, and otherwise, you have more or less a free hand to conduct matters as you please."

Which seemed a far less difficult assignment than he would have thought. "Is that all, sir?" Andrahar asked, somewhat surprised.

"More or less," the scholar repeated.

"Sir?"

Harthil smiled humorlessly. "In terms of that 'less,' while I would hope you might convey to the esquires something of life in Umbar, as I believe you are called 'Andrahar of Umbar,' and also of life in Bakshir, for so I guess from your... speech," he said, after the barest of pauses, during which time Andrahar felt a brief flutter of fear in the pit of his stomach, "I would nonetheless prefer you kept away from certain subjects. The Prince's household has been entrusted with the formation of most of the noble youth in Western Gondor, and many in the more northerly provinces as well. Most fathers do not take well to their sons learning of the more... unusual... aspects of Haradric custom."

Andrahar digested this speech, and the suggestively prim tone in which it was delivered and came immediately to a conclusion about what Harthil might consider the 'unusual' aspects of Haradric ways. For caste practices, ritual purgation, slavery, the bastard's taboo, and some of the strange outgrowths of certain religious sects, which all deserved to be called unusual in light of Gondor's customs, were nevertheless certainly not barred topics, for the esquires learned of them from other instructors. They might be highly regulated subjects, and Andrahar had always tended to bridle when he read Gondorian accounts of all such things, but however 'unusual,' they were part of an esquire's education, against the day when he might need such knowledge as part of an embassy or else on the field, when dealing with Haradric opponents.

Which leaves me with but few remaining quirks, he thought, rather sourly, not liking the way Harthil looked at him. For it was impossible not to recognize the thought animating that gaze: pervert. Not many knew about Andrahar's tastes when it came to carnal matters, and if Harthil did, it raised the question: from where or from whom had he learned this? Had he caught Andrahar out somehow on his own, perhaps having seen him with the rare lad or (even worse) discerned his love for Imrahil? That seemed unlikely, given the lengths Andrahar went to in order to avoid scrutiny where his intimate affairs were concerned.

So had he been told of Andrahar's proclivities, on the grounds that, as Harthil had said, fathers in Gondor were not pleased that their sons should be exposed to 'unnatural vice', and that Harthil, as an instructor of young men, had a stake in knowing which of his assistants could not be trusted to condemn it appropriately? Illian's expression was masked, but he was not intervening, and Andrahar could not decide how he ought to understand that silence.

At the very least, it felt rather unfair. For whatever else might be said of the esquires, Andrahar was quite convinced, given the repertoire of insults he had endured over the past several years, whenever there were no officers about to hear them, that the esquires needed him not at all to fill their minds with such scandalous notions. A genteel education did not prevent the esquires from finding their ways to brothels, nor spare them exposure to barracks talk. And though he was strongly of the opinion that most of them could stand to have the nonsensical, sensationally salacious half-truths forcibly knocked out of their heads, and that this did not require a sermon of any sort, it appeared that Master Harthil did not trust him in such matters.

And perhaps he is right not to, Andrahar conceded grudgingly, as he cast about for some suitable response. Not because he himself had any desire to confront his fellows on a matter that was guaranteed to put him in danger of running afoul of the law (or having it run afoul of him, more likely, once irate fathers became involved) and which might well lead to questions about his own tastes that he had no desire to answer. But because no matter what I might say, he realized, the others will take it badly from me. Having of necessity a practical nature, Andrahar abhorred nothing more than an ineffective effort, and particularly where it mattered greatly to him. So best, perhaps, to guard his silence on such matters and leave it to someone else—Imrahil, perhaps—to disabuse his fellows of their more outrageous misconceptions.

Therefore, he firmly quashed his resentment, and replied, neutrally, "Then if you deem it best I avoid them, I shall avoid them, sir."

Harthil gave him another long look, but nodded after a moment. "Then that is settled. There are some particular things you should know about some of your students that may help you." Harthil laid a hand atop a pile of folios stacked upon a corner of Illian's desk and said, "These are the end of term reports we keep on each esquire. Read through them: you shall find that some of them are persistently weak in certain areas of their instruction, and find also such remedies as we have attempted and found helpful or useless. They should help you to orient your efforts."

Andrahar gazed upon the stack, which was of a respectable size, and sighed inwardly. "Thank you, sir," he replied politely.

"Very well, then. I shall observe upon occasion and I expect to hear from you at the end of each month what progress or problems you have made or encountered. Good evening, Andrahar," Harthil said, and rose, prompting Andrahar to rise as well, though Illian remained as he was. "Master Illian."

"Master Harthil," Illian murmured, and waited until Harthil had departed, ere he waved at Andrahar, somewhat impatiently. "Sit down, lad," he said, folding his hands before him. And when Andrahar had done so, continued: "I am sorry for that. It was not the intention to bring up matters too personal, but given the circumstances, and Harthil's experience in the South and also his sensibilities in such matters..." He trailed off.

"Master Harthil seems very knowledgeable about a great many things, sir; I am sure his opinion is worth much," Andrahar replied, dutifully. Illian grimaced, and the young knight dared to press: "He is not simply an instructor in language, nor only one of the Prince's staff, is he?"

Illian raised a brow at him, but after a moment, he shook his head. "No, he is not," he replied and said no more, which was telling enough, in its way. But he hastened to add: "But what he is, and for our purposes that is what matters, is the best speaker of Haradric and Khandian that we have in court at this time—barring yourself, of course. So…" The Master of Records gracefully turned a palm upward. "Have you any further questions?"

None fit to be asked, or that would be answered! Andrahar thought. For there was no reasonable way to ask whether Harthil's insistence on oversight came from the masters themselves. And if he is what I think he is, I will get no further answer from Illian or anyone as to what Harthil does for Dol Amroth, he reasoned. So: "No, sir, not at this time."

Illian made a soft noise in the back of his throat, and he eyed the young knight closely. "Can you handle this, Andrahar?" he asked.

Can I afford not to? Andrahar wondered, though he knew the answer already. Therefore he lifted his chin and said firmly, "Yes, sir."

That seemed to satisfy Illian, for he nodded and straightened in his chair. "Very good. Then you have our thanks for your help, for there are not so many who can serve in this capacity." The Master of Records gestured towards the door. "It has been a long day. Go take what rest you may—you have earned it as much as anyone this past week," he said. "And call upon me should you feel the need for assistance in any matter."

Andrahar stood, scooping the pile of records up. "Thank you, sir," he said, and bowed slightly before quietly departing. And though he had some time before supper which might be put to profitable use in the salle, he decided he might as well begin reading.

For I would rather the whole of tomorrow for my own purposes, and night is the best time for tedious reading. So decided, he retreated to his own chambers where he lit the lamps in their sconces and upon the desk at which he settled himself with the reports, and he began to leaf through them.

He had managed perhaps ten of them before the bells rang, tolling the hour and announcing supper. Andrahar set his work aside to join his fellows in the hall, where he sat near the end of one of the knights' tables, listening to the low hum of conversation, watching as men settled beside each other to eat and talk with the ease of long familiarity. It made his own as yet friendless presence at table feel all the more awkward. For though Andrahar had got by for years on his own, and prided himself on needing no one's favor, his time in Dol Amroth, in Minas Tirith, and even his season with Thorongil had not been without effect. Having had a taste of steady companionship, he missed it now.

Yet lacking Imrahil's charm or easy, outgoing manner, he found himself disarmed, adrift, unsure how exactly to go about seeking a remedy for that lack. He had had but little practice befriending others, and particularly not across the disadvantage of rank he still felt as the newest white belt among the Swan Knights. Trust, after all, was something he had always perforce been sparing in, for there were few in Harad for a bastard son of a lord to trust, and even fewer for the out-caste, escaped slave. And as an esquire, he had ignored the others who disdained or ignored him, for there had always been Imrahil, and so he had not felt the need for other friendship.

Beyond that, there remained the question of how his new, knightly peers viewed him, whether they might not see still the Haradric cur—Imrahil's strange lapdog elevated to the incongruous rank of hound, as Yuletide court gossip more or less had it. Add to that his long time away from Dol Amroth, and then a week of odd hours, and he felt a stranger at table, so that Andrahar found himself glancing every so often towards the esquires, and wishing longingly for Imrahil's company.

But his friend was ensconced at the lower tables among other friends, looking rather weary, but relieved that the week was done with at last. As was usual when first week was finally over, the esquires evinced a mixture of exhaustion and elation, chattering rather giddily amongst themselves. It was strange to think it had been more than a year since last he had sat with them—more than a year since he had had to face the twice annual trial of that first week of the term.

His own tablemates were less animated in their conversation, though not a few of the older men cast an amused eye over at the esquires. "Heard they got around you and the sixth squad today, Remarin," one of them, Cirendur, said, and nodded at one of the young knights further down the table.

Remarin shook his head. "Bound to happen sometimes, and we had the lower side of the field."

"I just hope it shall not happen with the Haradrim!" came the retort.

"We retreated in good order, and in the end we did turn them," Remarin replied without fuss. "I will say, though, that either they're luckier than we ever were in such drills, or else some of the lads are getting cannier with time. I think it was Celdir's squad that flanked us. Not the best swordsman, perhaps, but he has an eye for advantage and it seems he can get a company to follow him."

Sergeant Barcalan, who had been one of the judges of the exercise, snorted softly. "Aye, he has the eye to make a good tactician, and in full cry, he has the benefit of his station and knows how to use it. Thus the lads will go along with him. But he needs more than that before I'll recommend him to my place with an easy heart." Barcalan paused to chew thoughtfully on a bit of fish before he gestured to Remarin and concluded: "Next time the Armsmaster sends you up against them in a few weeks, give him a good lead—I want to see whether he'll stick his neck out or not, and if he does, how he'll get out of it."

"If he gets out of it, sergeant," Remarin replied, whereupon another of the younger knights, Sildar, interjected:

"I would not be so certain he shall be at a loss, Remya. I was on that field, too, and he nearly had you today."

Remarin grunted. "I have not said otherwise," he said. "Nevertheless, he shall not get another chance like he did today. We cannot have the esquires outmaneuvering knights, after all!"

"Mayhap not, but it happens," Sildar said pointedly, and glanced suddenly down the table. "Does it not, Andrahar?" Andrahar, who had not expected to be included in this conversation, stiffened slightly as attention shifted to him. "You took down the Fountain Guard's captain this summer, did you not?"

"Aye, but I was not an esquire then," Andrahar replied quickly.

"You were close enough," Sildar declared, dismissing the difference. But before Andrahar could decide whether that reflected well or poorly upon him, Sildar continued: "And even before then, I seem to recall not every Swan Knight came out of the esquire practices with his pride intact after facing you!" Which was true, and surely no one needed him to confirm it; but what then should he say? Fortunately, Sildar seemed less interested in his response than in pressing his point. Leaning an elbow on the table, he leveled a forefinger at Remarin and said: "The which being so, I shouldn't be surprised if the good sergeant hasn't got a double play in mind—whoever wins, it shall be a lesson to the loser!"

At which comment, Barcalan merely quirked an eyebrow. "Be careful, Sildar, or you'll be carrying an anchor yourself one day," he said mildly, and brushed the patch upon his shoulder, which bore his sergeant's anchor. Sildar grinned and got a sigh and a shake of the head for his trouble, ere Barcalan glanced round the table at his fellows.

"The esquires will be in our company soon enough. Hope, then, that they do become a match for you. Just be certain," he cautioned, and pinned Remarin with a meaningful look, "that they earn their victories. Or I promise, you'll look back fondly upon first week as a milk run!"


With that promise hanging over all their heads, Andrahar and his fellow knights retired after supper, and the Armsmaster's assistant continued his reading, forcing himself to stay at it until he was down to the last two. He rubbed his eyes and frowned at them, for in point of fact, he had set them aside deliberately: they were Peloren's and Elethil's records, of course. After a moment, he opened both of them, set them side by side, and began reading.

Nearly all the nobility of Gondor had a useful knowledge of Sindarin, and Peloren and Elethil were no exception. The report upon their initial test in that language showed them both fluent in it, and so forbidden from using it as one of the two languages every knight had to know and be able to write in. Only commoners and those who showed definite shortcomings in Sindarin were permitted to let that stand as their second required language. Andrahar supposed he had been lucky, Harthil's words notwithstanding, not to have been forced to learn it, though he had of necessity picked up a little of it.

Of the remaining tongues offered, quite a few of the esquires chose to learn Rohirric, a small number opted for the Bardings' native tongue or else Khandian, and the remainder studied Haradric on the assumption that it was wise to know one's enemy. Andrahar knew very well that Gondorians generally found Haradric difficult, changing as it did to accommodate caste and sex, as well as its peculiar emphasis on rhythm and breath. According to the records, Peloren seemed an indifferent student, neither struggling too greatly nor showing any particular aptitude for the language, while Elethil seemed to be coming along just barely well enough to pass in his written work, though Harthil's notes suggested his spoken Haradric was weaker than his written exercises.

And if I must correct their speech, then it promises to be a long term with Elethil at least, Andrahar thought unhappily. And that all aside from what lies between us...

Which ugliness reared its head at that very moment, for as Andrahar turned the page to see whether there were anything else Harthil or other instructors had to say of his former classmates' scholarly abilities, he discovered not a report upon their work, but a report of an entirely different sort. Although the hand was constant—clearly, the same person had written out the different copies—it appeared that all the masters, and a pair of distinguished colleagues, had had a hand in its creation, for their names stood prominently upon the title page:

Disciplinary report, considerations, and recommendations concerning the incident of Lithe 2974—Armsmaster Ornendil, Master of Horses Théorwyn, Master of Records Illian, Master Healer Kendrion (consulting), and Captain-Commander Valandil (consulting).

It was a sizable sheaf of papers, kept together by a string tied about them like a parcel, but they were not otherwise bound. That suggested a continuing report, something that the masters might be adding to even now. It was certainly thick enough to contain a year and a half's worth of material, though who knew what, precisely, was in it…?

An awful temptation came over him, then. Andrahar was not a man to pry; he had been given the folios that he might prepare himself better to face his former classmates in one setting, and one setting only. He had therefore set aside unread all portions of his students' folios that did not speak to the duty he had been assigned. But this...

The Prince had rendered judgment, and the fate of Peloren and Elethil was well-known, but of course that public reckoning could have been only one part of the response to so extraordinary an incident. Yet he had never learned, beyond the Armsmaster's initial concern for the integrity of the Swan Knights' eventual ranks, and the promise to prevent any future such occurrences, what the masters had thought of the matter. Obviously, they followed the Prince's judgment, but beyond that, he did not know how the matter had been played out among them, nor how Peloren and Elethil stood with them currently.

If the number of pages were an indication of concern, then it seemed they were very concerned, yet what or who were the objects of that concern? And what of Captain Valandil's opinion, under whose command he now fell when he was not serving Ornendil's purposes? Andrahar had not come in for overmuch scrutiny from the captain. On the one hand, this was hardly surprising, given his lowly junior standing and the fact that he had been scarce on the lists this past week. On the other... did the captain share the sense he had gleaned from several courtiers that the whole matter was more a spectacle than serious? Just what did the captain think of having one of the Haradrim as Ornendil's primary assistant? What was Harthil's game, and had it indeed anything to do with any of the masters or Captain Valandil?

As if that is your concern! conscience snapped at last. Andrahar shook himself. And then he stood abruptly, chair scraping on the flagstones, as he shoved the two folios away and then retreated almost angrily to the opposite corner of the room. There he stood and stared at the walls, hands restlessly worrying at the end of his belt.

What is the matter with me? he wondered. When have I ever cared overmuch for such... gossipy... intrigues? He had no love for prurient curiosity, nor for the self-import of vanity, which wrought so many delusions out of innocent words and looks. It was not for that that he had ever kept an ear open to rumor and whisperings, it was simply prudence to know what passed among others, to know what he faced. And he had learned with a fair amount of precision in just what disrepute he was held by many over the years, which ought to have occasioned worried concern for himself. Yet he had never feared for his own safety, until Valyon and his lot had set on him, and even that concern had been more or less passing. It seemed that now, however, the scurrilous gossip of courtiers was enough to set him on edge in the face of no particular malice or even opinion among his fellow knights.

Steady, lad, he rebuked himself, breathing in deeply, and then letting it out slowly. He turned and his eye fell upon the white sword-belt hung upon its peg. They have trusted you so far. The Captain and the masters do not play court games where their charges are concerned. Ornendil is no flatterer of men, especially not where sword-work is concerned; nor is Captain Valandil. And Master Illian told you Harthil has his... peculiarities. It was dishonorable, really, to doubt them when he had not been given one shred of evidence that they had less than full confidence in him. The which being so, then what if his peers disliked or mistrusted him after all? What of it? It was no different from what he had experienced before, assuming they did indeed loathe him. No need, then, to be concerned.

With that thought firmly in mind, he turned and made for the desk once more. And as he walked, he winced slightly, shrugging his shoulders. He arched his back, raising his arms above his head, pulling a bit one way, then the other, feeling restless, twitchy.

'Tis past time I got back on the lists, he thought, then. No doubt his unhappiness with his own state of readiness was at back of his rather self-centered, suspicious, touchy musings of late.

For though his disguise the past few months as a merchant had served the mission well, it had also had its disadvantages, chief among which was that he had had to curtail his practice: a merchant might carry a few daggers, but he would not carry a sword unless he were selling it. As a mercenary, Thorongil had carried a pair of scimitars—their practice in the double-hand form had not been, it seemed, wholly a matter of mutual whim—which had at least given Andrahar a sparring partner and a weapon whenever they could find privacy enough for such exercises. But privacy tended to mean lack of space, too, and his form had suffered for it.

He had, of course, carried several daggers, all of which he had diligently practiced with, or Thorongil's skill notwithstanding, they would never have escaped the border patrol. And the moment they had crossed into Gondor, Andrahar had gone back to daily practice with the scimitar. Nevertheless, so protracted a disruption of his training routine greatly irritated him, and the week of running esquires ragged had not left him time enough to maintain what form he had, let alone improve it. The prospect of teaching students, even if only as Ornendil's assistant, in such condition, woke a definite fear in him, for Andrahar was not one to give anything less than his best. Unfortunately, his best was not at the moment available to him, and his frustration was visceral.

A man of no substance was a man at the mercy of the tin-plated tongues, ran the wisdom of Haradric sages. He would be wise, then, to regain his particular substance, and quickly, so that the tin tongues no longer weighed upon him, nor would he be tempted to put their whispers into mouths that had thus far said nothing to offend.

And then mayhap I shall worry less about Peloren and Elethil, too!

Tomorrow, then, must begin early and end late, if he was to recover something of himself. Andrahar therefore shuffled Peloren's and Elethil's folios carefully back into order with the others and snuffed the lamps upon his desk and in the sconces.

Then he stripped out of the several layers that he wore in a futile effort to keep the cold out, exchanging them for his nightclothes. He hung his clothing neatly in the clothespress, but quickly, too, for the chill wormed its way in just as swiftly and by the time he had finished, he could feel the gooseflesh on his arms. Closing the drawers, he made haste to dive beneath his blankets, poking his nose out only in order to blow out the candle upon the bedside stand. Then he burrowed back under the covers.

Cocooned against the winter air and with one hand thrust under his pillow where lay his familiar and trusty dagger, Andrahar fell instantly asleep.

~ 0 ~


However, true to his intentions, Andrahar rose early on his first day off since the day after Yule. The cooks in Dol Amroth were already astir, so he was able to wolf down breakfast before heading out to the salle with the rising sun, having already settled upon his schedule for the day.

Since coming to Dol Amroth four years ago, and as soon as he had recovered enough for such exercise, he had always begun his day with a few hours devoted to blade-work, and he was pleased to take up that habit once more. As others arrived in the salle and, after stretching for a time, began to spar with each other, Andrahar remained apart, hard at work with first daggers, then scimitar, and finally sword, 'til he was satisfied he had gone through every single form he knew at least once point-perfect.

Only then did he join the others for a little sparring practice. He tried Cirendur, and found him congenial enough as a partner; went a few rounds with Sildar, who fought sword and dagger with him; challenged a dour-faced knight named Valmir, and was a bit disappointed with a string of relatively easy victories; and was finally challenged in turn by Barcalan, who, after a lengthy and fiercely contested round, ended by beating the tiring young knight decisively.

"Not bad," the sergeant said, and gave him a hand up. "Have a little patience, Andrahar—you'll not make up for months away in a single day, you know."

"Yes, sir," Andrahar panted, sounding nonetheless determined to do just that. Barcalan shook his head, then clapped him on the shoulder.

"That's enough for you for now. Go wash up and get something to eat, lad," he ordered.

Having no other choice, Andrahar obeyed. However, he was back soon after lunch and spent another hour sparring before he excused himself from the others and went to become reacquainted with his horse, Bhraina, a rather lengthy process. Eventually, he joined a company of knights at tilting for rings, which was rather humiliating for him given how long it had been since he had had the means to practice such skills.

"Give it a week or two," one of his new peers, a sergeant, Melethron, advised. "You'll have your seat back and your lance-eye soon enough. By the way, well done, about the Heir."

"Thank you," Andrahar replied, a little shortly, and not simply because he was beginning to feel the strain of the day's rigors. For in truth, after Yuletide, he was beginning to tire of thanks for old deeds. It is not as if I would have done—could have done—aught else than I did! And 'tis done and over with more than a year now! he thought. If Melethron noticed his mood, however, he gave no sign, only nodded and moved to take his turn at the rings.

Eventually, most of the knights drifted off to other duties or exercises. Andrahar, however, kept at it for some time after most of the rest of the company had retired, 'til he could feel the ache of tension all the way down his back and through every muscle in his legs. He then walked Bhraina back to the stables where he gingerly dismounted and made his stiff way about the stall, stripping tack and rubbing his mount down.

That task done, he stretched painfully for a short while, then returned to the keep. After a long soak in the bathroom and the judicious application of one of Master Kendrion's unguents to saddle-sore parts, and yet more stretching, he joined the general stream of bodies to the great hall. Weary as he was, he ate his supper in silence, then excused himself to escape to his room. Having once reached it, he locked the door, and as soon as he had got out of his clothes and put them away, crawled into bed and was unconscious for some hours.

But the next morning, he was back in the salle again, and every bit as early, even if he had to grit his teeth to get through the lunges and low-stance drills. He also had more company—when rest days came in sets, near the end of the set, the numbers in the salle or on the field tended to swell with men working up to a return to full practice.

There were also more esquires hanging about the edges of the room today, watching their knighted peers anxiously, a little enviously, and going through their own sets of drills. Every so often, as he made a turn in a pass, or paused between drills, Andrahar would glance their way and catch a few of them staring at him. But none challenged him or moved to speak with him; as soon as he met their gazes, they looked away and settled back into their forms. But he could feel their eyes on him the moment his back was turned, and he grimaced slightly, and not only because getting out of a deep lunge hurt this morning.

Predictably, he suffered more losses than he had the day before, including one to Remarin that greatly irked him.

"The way you're working yourself, it will hurt as much tomorrow," Remarin warned, as the two of them lowered their weapons. The other gave him a grin that had just a little too much self-satisfaction in it for Andrahar's taste, especially when the next words were: "You might want to take it a little easier—you don't want to be caught out in a session with the esquires tomorrow!"

"It will hurt as much tomorrow, and likely more," Andrahar conceded. "But if they catch me out, they shall deserve to."

Which was perhaps not the most diplomatic or gracious of replies. Remarin's eyes narrowed, and his mouth thinned a bit, for Andrahar's words could hardly help but recall Barcalan's rebuke from the day before yesterday. However, Andrahar was not in the mood to apologize for that, particularly not when he agreed with both Sildar and Barcalan. He had been on that field, too, after all, if only as one of Ornendil's referees.

Still, such comments were impolitic, and Andrahar did not particularly feel the need to try Remarin again—better to end matters before they truly got started. And so he said, by way of excuse, "'Tis nearly noon, and I had hoped to see to some other chores today. Good day, Remarin."

"Another time, then," Remarin replied, coolly. "Good day." They saluted, as etiquette required whenever one came to the end of a sparring session, and Andrahar made for the armory to rack his practice sword, passing a group of six or seven esquires who hastily broke up into sparring sets in a pathetic effort to hide the fact that they had been watching him the while.

Noon saw him washed, brushed, and ensconced in the library by one of the windows for a time, poring over Na Khuvati, a courtly chronicle compiled by Haradric scribes, and which Master Harthil had assigned for the new term. Andrahar, whose education in the literature of his own people had come to an abrupt halt at age twelve, had not had to suffer through the rigors of courtly prose for quite literally years. For though he had, out of pride and a need to defend his own from the tangential slurs of esquires, made an effort to pick up where his father's scribes had left off with him, he had never fancied himself a scholar of any sort.

The which being so, if he had to spend his time amongst books, he preferred them to be either useful or else enjoyable. He had accordingly spent most of what few hours of free study he had ever devoted to scholarly pursuits reading The Warrior's Arts, a well-regarded manual of tactics, strategy, and meditation by the legendary Khaito, and other, similar tracts, or else feeding a long-held love of Haradric poetry.

Alas, Na Khuvati, or 'The Annals,' as the Westron translation had it, were neither poetic nor useful, and certainly not enjoyable, to his way of thinking.

They were not useful, for despite the long interruption of his own education, Andrahar could readily think of several histories that told more or less the same stories far more succinctly. And while The Annals were not completely devoid of style, what style they possessed conformed to the exceptionally long-winded, highly ornamented, cumbersome style of the courtly scribes, who delighted to write sentences that were nearly impossible to speak.

Andrahar, murmuring words under his breath, found himself pausing frequently and rereading, seeking the right breaks that would let him say the words as written on the breath. Having little patience for such efforts, he was grateful when the bells tolled two o'clock, marking the end of his pre-appointed study.

Even a few hours in the saddle will be welcome by comparison! he thought, wincing slightly as he rose. My horse has a steadier rhythm than these histories! Which did not make his afternoon any less painful, but at least the tilting yards served his own purposes. And he did finish by making six out of ten strikes on average, which did something to improve his mood.

Which was a good thing, in the end. Andrahar finished late, as he had the day before, and as before, it took him longer than usual to complete the necessary grooming and care of his mount. By the time Bhraina was happily settled, it was getting dark. But he did not go immediately to the baths, for he had not taken the time the night before to deposit a change of clothes in the bath racks. He therefore returned to his room to fetch some and perhaps to stretch some of the stiffness out of sore muscles in private before going to clean himself up.

He had only just discarded his cloak and hung his scimitar upon its holder, however, when a knock interrupted him. Must be Imrahil, he thought, habitually, and went to answer the door. However, it was not the Heir who stood waiting.

"Good evening, sir. We were hoping we could have a word with you," Peloren said, and then eyeing Andrahar's sweaty, disheveled state, added, "But we could come back later, if you were so inclined." Elethil, ever the quiet one, hung back at his friend's shoulder, but he nodded, watching Andrahar anxiously.

And with that look, all the irritation and uncertainty of the other night came flooding back. Weary as he was, and uncomfortably cool in sweat-damp clothing, to say nothing of sore and hungry, it was on the tip of his tongue to refuse and excuse himself to go wash up. But... They do seem—anxious. Sincerely so, he thought and so at length, mindful of his promises, he stood back, leaving them space to pass.

"Come in, if you can excuse the poor reception," he said, plucking at his shirt by way of explanation. They apparently could excuse it, for they both entered, and stood quietly to one side, gazing about, all the while trying not to be obvious about doing so. Andrahar, covertly watching their furtive surveillance as he closed the door, wondered what they saw—what they had expected to see.

His present accommodations were certainly more spacious than an esquire's, but were hardly less spartan. Hauberk and armor stood on their racks in one corner, and above them, on pegs, hung his scimitar, for the bastard sword preferred by the Swan Knights he kept with his tack, habit having led him to keep a weapon in ready reserve, just in case. There were a few books on a shelf above the spotless desk; the bed was narrow and neatly made, with a trunk at the foot of it, and upon the floor lay a rug, whose intricate, spiraling patterns declared it the product of some Haradric weaver—a gift from Olwen, he had been informed upon moving into the room.

Other than the lanterns and the inevitable clothespress, night- and washstand, there were a set of four candles and a small, sand-filled tray with a few incense sticks all set upon a squat, two-tiered stand. Andrahar, noting that curious eyes paused on that last set of items in particular, quickly moved to ask, by way of diverting such attention:

"What was it you wanted to talk about?" As he spoke, he moved to stand before his desk, drawing their gazes to him.

At that, there was an awkward pause. Peloren's lips parted, as if he would speak, but then he frowned, seeming to try to collect his thoughts. The hour being what it was, and feeling rather cold standing in his clammy clothing, Andrahar at last sighed, and prompted, "Tonight, please, gentlemen!"

His apparent impatience proved motivating, however: Peloren shook himself a bit, and said then, "I'm sorry, it's... ah... we wanted to apologize. For last year. We hoped we might settle the matter with you, sir."

Andrahar lifted a brow at that. "Settle the matter," he repeated, feeling an odd tightness grip his innards. He stared at his erstwhile classmates, who waited in silence for an answer, Peloren gazing down at him with a blank expression that did nothing to hide his discomfort, Elethil with his eyes downcast, though he kept darting glances between Andrahar and Peloren, never quite looking Andrahar in the face. "You want to... settle with me. For the time—"

"Yes," Peloren supplied quickly. "Yes, we would."

There was an excruciating pause, during which time Andrahar fought the urge to squirm, and equally the urge to lash out at Elethil, who was fidgeting. And all the while he struggled to sift some coherent response from a mass of conflicted feeling, freighted with the achy weariness of a long day that threatened to numb all thought. It could not quite suppress the insistent sense that something was not right in this, but at the moment, he was simply too exhausted and dispirited to find words for it.

How do we 'settle' this? How are we supposed to settle 'this'? he wondered, feeling a curious apathy (or was it futility?) wash over him. Which was likely why he said: "I do not see that we've much to do here, then. 'Tis done with, a year and more now."

Two pairs of grey eyes blinked at him, surprised. And also confused. And wary. In a way, he could hardly blame them for that, for it struck him as wrong, too, but then again, the whole conversation was out of joint and none of them seemed to know how to right it.

"I suppose that it is," Peloren replied at last, and cautiously. He glanced at Elethil, who bit his lip, shoulders lifting ever so slightly as he shrugged, uncomprehending. Peloren turned back to him, clearly indecisive, to ask: "Is that... all? Sir?"

It couldn't possibly be everything. The very question was absurd, but for all that, Andrahar had no way of answering that absurdity. Frustration set in, yet frustration did not give him a way to start this conversation over again. It did, however, end it.

"Unless you have anything else to say?" he asked, without much hope, and was not surprised when both of them shook their heads. "Then..." He shrugged and gestured towards the door.

"Good night, sir," Peloren said quickly, and he and Elethil beat a hasty retreat, apparently unwilling to test their fortune. Still, as Peloren departed, he gave Andrahar one last, odd look over his shoulder ere he shut the door behind himself and hurried off.

Andrahar, meanwhile, set his hands upon his desk and leaned back upon them, drumming his fingers upon the wood in an agitated fashion. His stomach growled, but that strange tension remained, like a hand fisting in his gut, and all of a sudden, he hunched his shoulders, wincing slightly at the pull of tight muscles, and then he shivered. He needed to warm up—to get the knots out so he could digest matters.

With a sigh, he shoved away from the desk and stretched his arms, then flexed his wrists so that the daggers he wore up either sleeve sprang into his hands. He gave each of them a practiced flip, feeling their weight, then nodded and resheathed them. Grabbing his cloak once more, he swept out of his room and headed back to the practice salle with its promise of exhaustion.

~ 0 ~


Meanwhile, in the Fledglings' Wing, Peloren and Elethil shut themselves in Elethil's room, where Peloren lit the lamps in their sconces then went and dropped immediately onto the bed. Elethil stood leaning back against the door. For a time, they were silent, 'til at length, Peloren glanced up at his friend and said, "Well, that might have gone worse."

Elethil grunted, lips thinning as his brows knit. He did not seem in the least relieved by the evening's confrontation. "It might have gone better, too," he replied. Giving Peloren a grimly anxious look, he warned, "He hasn't forgotten a thing, you know."

"Neither have we," Peloren countered gently. But he waved a hand and nodded, forestalling objections. "I know, I know what you mean. Yet it is a reprieve, at least. The Armsmaster did say that the masters and Captain Valandil had spoken with him about us. Mayhap he took somewhat to heart."

"Assuming the masters aren't as eager to see the backs of us," Elethil said, darkly.

Peloren sighed softly. "Elya, I know it has been a long term, but they have been fair with us, I think." To which, Elethil muttered something under his breath as he shoved away from the door and moved to sit heavily upon his chair. "What was that?" Peloren asked, but his friend shook his head.

"Nothing. Never mind," Elethil replied tiredly, and pushed his hands through his hair. "It's just that it's going to be as long a term this time, too. Maybe longer. Because whatever he may say, Andrahar is not going to let us forget our faults. And now we have Celdir and his lot on us, too, and you know them: they don't pull pranks, Pel."

Peloren did not answer immediately, for in fact, Elethil was right. Oh, here and there, yes, of course they played pranks—everyone did from time to time, and there was not an esquire on the hall who had not, at one point or another, given another his due in humiliation for some infraction or other. Well, Peloren amended to himself, with the possible exception of Andrahar, that is. He might have guarded Imrahil's back a time or two for that sort of thing, but I don't think he ever did it himself. No, Andrahar was not the sort for that kind of discipline.

And neither were Celdir and his friends—not when it came to defending a sleight to honor or friendship. "How much worse can it be than what Faldion's lot do?" Peloren asked after a moment, in an effort to find some perspective on the matter.

Elethil snorted. "You remember the time Celdir ended up on water rations, don't you? He broke Galmar's arm, Pel."

"And both of them admitted they had been quarreling—that they sought each other out. Celdir said it himself—he let his fury take him and did not realize how hard he struck."

Elethil stared at him. "You're the one who said then that he had a vengeful streak in him! And the sergeants thought so, too, when they saw that penalty imposed atop the two weeks of extra drills and latrine duty. They knew what they were about."

Peloren sighed. "I am not defending him—not exactly. But listen, he cannot get away with that sort of thing twice, Elya. One time might merit punishment, but two is too many to keep him."

"So he'll find another way to remember him to us," Elethil replied and shrugged. "And we'll still have to deal with Andrahar."

"With courtesy," Peloren sighed softly, letting his head droop as he surrendered the effort at optimism.

"Or it is over," Elethil finished.

Silence fell once more. But eventually, Peloren sighed, then stood and stretched his arms over his head before letting them fall to his sides. "Master Théorwyn wants me in the stables early tomorrow to meet with Tarondor. I've got to get some sleep. You should, too, Elya."

Elethil shrugged as he stood and walked Peloren to the door. "I will soon enough. There are some things I need to see to first."

"Oh?"

"Aye," Elethil replied, but did not elaborate. "Good night, Pel."

"Good night," Peloren replied, slipping out the door and down the hall to his room. Just as he reached it, however, he heard Elethil call after him in a low voice:

"Pel?"

"Aye, what?" he asked, pausing in his doorway. He turned back to see his friend leaning on the doorframe, watching him.

"You'll be careful tomorrow?" And the look he turned upon him was so very somber, Peloren felt a chill run through him.

"Of course," he replied after a moment. "You take care, too."

"Of course," Elethil replied. Then: "Good night." And he retreated and shut the door. Peloren looked after him a moment, then sighed and shook his head. He entered his room, lit the lamps, and made a swift inspection of his quarters. Nothing seemed to be out of place, and so he changed into his nightclothes and turned down the covers. Then he went back about the room blowing out the lights he had just lit, 'til at length there was but the one on his nightstand. He crawled into bed, arranging his blankets to his satisfaction before he leaned over and blew the candle out. Then he settled back and waited for sleep to come.

But oppressed as he was by anxiety—about Andrahar, about Celdir and his friends, about Elethil, and about his own new duties—sleep did not come swiftly. Instead, his mind conjured tale upon tale of what might await him in the months to come, trouble in every shape and form. And it seemed he could not go far along any line of thought without encountering Andrahar.

Because although it could have gone worse, it still didn't go well at all, he thought mournfully, and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Why can we not say what we mean? But the moment those dark and unyielding eyes had fixed upon him, everything in him had seemed to tremble and he had stuttered, and everything had become… lessened. Lesser. As if there were nothing behind the words he had thought to say. It occurred to him to wonder whether that was not in itself somehow telling.

The third watch was ending before weariness at last got the better of him. He huddled down beneath the covers, and drifted off to sleep in the uneasy conviction that there would need to be an answer to that question one day…

~~~

Author's Notes:

1. Elostirion is the tallest of the towers Gil-galad had built for Elendil. It stands between the Shire and the Grey Havens, and housed the palantír that looked west to the Undying Lands. See footnote 2 of Appendix I.iii, RoTK, or else footnote 16 of "The Palantíri," UT, 432. For the purposes of this chapter, the important bit is that it is way the heck far away from Dol Amroth, and so represents a state or stage of things far down the line and that excludes certain company if you desire to attain it.

2. The dictionary project Andrahar was working on is a reference to chapter 1 of Soledad's Pawns and Symbols. I don't know that our stories quite follow the same course where Andrahar's personal history is concerned after that, but it's a good excuse to get Andrahar out of language lessons!


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