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6
Trials

And so the term proper began.

Peloren found himself plunged into the world of a regular company, on the one hand, and on the other, the world of pages and their instructors. This meant he had mounted practice with the knights the first half of the morning, then switched to sword-work with them 'til noon, had lunch, struggled with Haradric and Illian's lectures on tactics in the early afternoon, and then spent the rest of his day working with the pages and less accomplished horsemen among the esquires 'til supper called them all within. After that, he usually spent an hour in the salle (unless he were assigned punitive duties or exercises with the esquire company he nominally belonged to), then went and studied 'til the clerks chased the esquires out of the library. After that, he usually fell into bed and slept like the dead 'til dawn, when he woke and did it all again.

Yet for all that he was busy and weary, he did not complain, for with the new term, the pranks ceased. In part, this was no doubt due to the masters' explicit, strict instructions that none such occur. "You are not here to make mischief for each other," Ornendil had told them at the end of the first day of the term. "There have been an inordinate number of pranks and the like since last term: they end now. Should we catch anyone, the offender's squad will face punitive duty for failing to prevent insubordinate behavior. Moreover, the offender will face not only myself, but Captain Valandil, who will decide whether he cares to have him finish his training. Should a squad come under scrutiny more than once for harboring offenders, all squad members will face the Captain-Commander's judgment. But even if he decides to keep you, I promise you, Captain Valandil is less forgiving than am I when it comes to discipline."

It was hard to imagine, after last term's punitive measures, someone less forgiving than the Armsmaster, which, combined with the threat of being sent home in disgrace, no doubt was largely responsible for the quiet in the Fledglings' Wing. Peloren had breathed a sigh of relief; if he had to deal with Andrahar, he would rather not have to deal with quite as much abuse from his peers at the same time. Which did not mean that he and Elethil were entirely safe from retribution, but it did help.

Of course, the new intolerance of pranks was not the only factor in promoting Peloren to a relative peace. His own new schedule, which distanced him from his peers, and the clear favor of the Master of Horses, no doubt had something to do with the sharp drop in fraternal harassment. He was simply not as often available, and Master Théorwyn's favor made him a more dangerous target. Under the new rules, it was risking dismissal to pull a prank on a fellow esquire; to pull one on one of the masters' designated assistants was practically inviting it.

Peloren could not but be grateful for that, but despite the reprieve, he fretted nonetheless. For his good fortune could not be shared, and Elethil remained bound to their peers. And although one might have expected that with the new distance the other esquires kept, he would settle, he seemed as weary as ever, and his mood more grim than before.

"What is it, Elya?" Peloren asked once, when he and Elethil were studying Na Khuvati one night.

"It's nothing," Elethil replied, habitually, and then gave it all away by blushing. Peloren frowned.

"The others have not been at you again, have they?"

"No."

"Well, then, what?" Peloren demanded, puzzled. Elethil sighed.

"Nothing. 'Tis just—" and there came a vague wave of the hand "—I've to master those forms we learned, and then there is all this reading for Haradric…"

Nothing, in other words, that had not to do with those areas of instruction that put them under Andrahar's authority. Peloren understood then, and so let him be, though he still worried. For though Peloren, too, found the hours he spent under Andrahar's tutelage to anxious times, and the spur to much anxious study, he thought Elethil took it worse than he did.

But Elya has always found Haradric more difficult, and 'tis not as if I have to endure Andrahar's instruction in sword-play, Peloren thought, feeling just a little guilty for his good luck. But guilt would not make matters better for his friend, and so he simply gave Elethil's hand a quick squeeze, and when Elethil looked up, offered what he hoped was a sympathetic, but encouraging, smile, before he bowed his head over his lessons once more.

Thus the weeks passed. December bled into January, and then February, which made good upon its bad reputation, as storm clouds rolled south from the White Mountains, bringing frigid rain and winds. Dol Amroth's denizens huddled within the city's stone walls while the boats rocked in the harbor. The esquires and knights kept to the salle and the halls for much of the month, with one notable exception as March drew nigh. One wet, blustery day, Ornendil called a number of the esquires together after breakfast, disregarding varying schedules, for a game of king of the hill.

"Spring is the start of campaigning season, lads, and while it is still winter, in other places, springtide is little better than this," Ornendil told the assembled esquires, who stood in their squads in the fields beyond the city, armored up, shivering, and equipped with a full set of practice equipment: wooden sword, a pair of wooden daggers, slings with 'soft shot' to give them some range weaponry, and short shields on their backs. There were no first year students among them, however, save those who had come up from the foot, nor even all the second years, which suggested something more trying than even their last skirmish had been. Something the masters did not trust less experienced lads to attempt, which left those tapped for this exercise wary.

"Battle is not like the practice salle, as you ought to know by now. Nor is it always on the flats or gentle slopes. Take a good look, lads," the Armsmaster said, and swept an arm towards one of Dol Amroth's shorter, but unfortunately steep and rather treacherous, hills. "The healers have planted the flag at the crest of Badhon. Your aim is to find it and defend it."

Faldion raised a hand then, and the Armsmaster nodded. "Sir, against whom are we defending it?" he asked.

"You may well ask. First week's skirmish suggests that facing a full company is not yet within your means. So today, you will be facing three squads to your six," the Armsmaster replied. "One of them will be commanded by Master Illian, another will be commanded by Master Théorwyn. I shall captain the third. Your task, gentlemen, is to take the hill and hold it. As soon as the flag is captured, the attacking company has one hour to force the defenders to retreat. Whoever holds the hill at the end of that hour wins the contest."

"And if we win, sir?" Faldion asked evenly, and Ornendil raised an appraising brow before such ambition.

"If the esquires win, I'll buy every man on this field a drink in the tavern at the end of the week and Friday's sword practice will be voluntary," the Armsmaster replied, and an excited murmur went through the esquires. "However," he cautioned, "if you lose, you will be drilling in formation every evening until I am satisfied with your work. Are there any further questions?" No one spoke, and so Ornendil nodded. "Very well. Then take your marks, and listen for the signal horn to begin. Make me a poor man, lads, and I shall be the happier for it!"

With that, the Armsmaster and his assistant departed to join the knights' squads that were forming up.

"That is not a regular company," Celdir observed, looking after them, as he and the other esquire squad commanders gathered to discuss tactics briefly and array their men.

"Sergeant Barcalan, Tarondor, Sildar," Faldion murmured, staring at the collection of seasoned knights, sergeants, and ambitious younger men forming up smartly on the masters.

"And Andrahar," Imrahil put in pointedly, and smiled faintly at the dark looks this provoked. "Methinks the Armsmaster might not be so eager to be a pauper as he lets on. This ought to be... interesting. Shall we, gentlemen? We have not much time, and we have a flag to capture!"


Some four hours later:

"Still think this is interesting?" Faldion asked Imrahil, as muddy, disheveled, and disheartened esquires wearily trudged down the halls to the bathroom.

"For lack of energy to think of another description, yes," the Heir replied, as he limped through the door that Celdir was holding open.

Personally, Peloren would have chosen another term for the match, save that the word he had in mind would have violated his oath of courtesy. 'Disaster' was perhaps a diplomatic alternative, and somewhat less depressing than 'massacre' or 'slaughter.' Not that diplomacy made the end result any less painful, alas!

"You all right?" Elethil asked in a dull-voiced undertone, seeing Peloren gingerly lower himself onto a bench to remove his boots, wincing and shifting about on it as he struggled with the buckles.

"Fine. Took a spill trying to take the eastern spur of the hill," Peloren replied, a little shortly. For Ornendil's company had, unsurprisingly, reached the hillcrest first and ensconced themselves about the flag, forcing the esquires to attempt to dislodge them. During one such effort, early in the game, Celdir had led their squad east, attempting to take advantage of a thrust from two esquire squads on the north face of the slope. He had timed it well enough, for most of the defense was concentrated elsewhere, but the ground on the east side was loose and slick, and the way up led through a set of rocky protrusions. Approaching from below, there was only one way to the top: through the cracks riven into the rock-face, upon which Illian had posted lookouts.

They had been spotted, of course, and the results had been predictable: in the narrow, stony gullies, they had been picked off by 'soft' sling shot or forcibly repelled by the men stationed at the mouths of the gullies, one of whom had sent Peloren careening back into two of his fellow esquires, who had not been quick enough to catch him, though they had at least broken his fall somewhat. Despite that, he had landed on his rear, to the feeling of shooting pain, then tumbled free of the short corridor and slid down the hill a little ways 'til he managed to find some purchase in the soft ground.

That had most definitely left a bruise. Peloren was only unsure whether that was the extent of the injury. He was, however, extremely reluctant to submit himself to the healers, for obvious reasons, but given how much it hurt to sit down at the moment, he wondered whether he would be able to avoid the Houses. Nor was there much comfort to be had from even the very few friends he possessed: he was hardly the only one to suffer from the morning's little catastrophe, but while misery loved company, said company was more often preoccupied with his own aches and pains than sympathetic to those of his fellows.

Of course, there was some consolation to be had in comparing misfortunes, he reflected, as he slipped into a tub (careful to kneel rather than sit). One esquire had actually slipped and fractured his shield-arm; another, Brelambar, had failed to replace a weak helmet strap and consequently had managed to get himself knocked out when he took a fall and the leather gave way and the helm tumbled free. The healers, who served as both referees and immediate assistance for serious injuries, had taken the lad off the hill on a stretcher and no one had seen him since.

Otherwise, all of them had bruises from their encounters with rocks, or with the ground, or else their encounters with the defenders, who had been zealous in beating off the esquires' attacks, despite their fewer numbers. Torlas had marks all the way up his left arm: having lost his shield, he had had to rely on his ability to guard with a knife—a skill Torlas had not mastered sufficiently. Iordel kept cracking his left shoulder, trying to ease a sore, jarred joint. Even Imrahil had not managed to emerge unscathed, and would be walking with bit of a limp for a day or two before losing the stiffness in his right leg that came of failing to block a strike from Andrahar. Apparently, the Southron did not allow friendship to get in the way of warfare, and Peloren blessed the fortune that had kept them apart during the skirmish.

On the whole, Peloren thought, as he clambered out and began toweling himself dry, they had given a dismayingly poor account of themselves, though there had been a few good moments, tactically. Their final push to drive the defenders from their posts had been strong, and Aldan had actually managed, almost by accident, to get through a gap in their opponents' front ranks, but not with any support. The breach had closed behind him almost immediately, and he had 'died' skewered by about five different people to judge by the bruising on his torso.

"I hope Naleth doesn't take this too ill," Aldan fretted, gingerly pressing one of the purpling marks and wincing ere he reached for his shirt.

"At least you made it to the top," Elethil murmured softly. But Aldan shook his head.

"It's a funny thing, lad, but the 'glory' part of your 'dying for glory' matters less to a wife, especially a pregnant wife, than the 'dying' part," he sighed, then elbowed Elethil. "That's twice you've turned me down since Yule, lad—you were right behind me 'til nearly the bitter end. Next time, you're coming with, and maybe you can hold them off long enough for me to grab the flag before being spitted."

At that, Faldion had snorted. "Next time, he ought to be in the rearguard. If he cannot keep to his feet, he can at least let others do their work without falling into them!"

Peloren frowned and tensed, feeling the mood grow suddenly ugly as others, hearing that comment, turned to stare at the three of them, but more at Elethil than the other two. Aldan gave Faldion a glare, but then glanced at Elethil. Elethil was staring at the floor, determinedly doing up the buttons on his sleeves, and did not respond. At that, Aldan sighed again and closed his eyes, as if with frustration, while Faldion merely shook his head in disgust, and, after a moment, departed. Some of the tension in the room left with him, but not all. Peloren approached and gently pressed his friend's shoulder in silent support, but Elethil shook off his hand and left swiftly, too, without another word.

Celdir, observing this, lifted an eyebrow, ere he said, in far too chipper a tone, "Well, I suppose we all do need formation drills. Iordel, do stop that or else go see the healers, will you? Come on!" So saying, he and several others, Iordel included, made for the door, leaving the others to finish up and make their own way to the hall for lunch before the afternoon practices and classes.

"That lad is going to be more chewed than a dog's favorite bone if he will not stand for himself," Aldan said suddenly, his voice pitched low to reach Peloren only. The older man gave him a puzzled look, and asked, "Has somewhat happened lately? I thought pranks had ceased."

Peloren blinked, surprised by this sudden speech, for they had not talked much since their argument, nor of aught of consequence. "I thought we weren't speaking," Peloren said, and perhaps more abruptly than he ought to have, to judge by the way the other's mouth tightened at his words. He sighed. "I'm sorry, that came out badly."

Aldan grunted. But then he, too, heaved a sigh, and offered Peloren a slight, lopsided smile, and he shrugged a bit, tugging his tunic straight. "We weren't speaking. But I got tired of it just now," he replied, breezily. He cocked his head at Peloren, looking concerned once more. "Truly, though, Pel, what matter with Elethil? We are not in the same squad, but even I know he has been working himself to the bone."

"Well, since he has been, it must be hard to feel nothing's come of it, would you not think?" Peloren replied, unwilling to say overmuch.

The older man eyed him closely at that, but when Peloren remained impassive and seemingly unperturbed by this scrutiny, he seemed reluctantly to accept this answer. "It would be hard," he conceded. "Still, the way he goes at it… he's wearing himself down. If he is not careful, something will happen, some accident, and I don't like to think of what would come of that." He paused, chewing gently at his lip as he stared past Peloren, as if looking after Elethil still. But at length, he shook his head, and returning his gaze to Peloren, changed the subject. "Speaking of things happening, are you sure you're all right, Pel? You've quite the pinch-faced look!"

"I can walk. I'm not certain about sitting, but I suppose I'll have to bear it," Peloren replied, and then asked, with more confidence than he felt: "How bad can it be, after all?"

Aldan snorted. "Don't ask that," he advised. "It shall be a long day for all of us. Let us go eat, therefore, so we do not wilt before 'tis up! You can tell me how it goes, being Master Théorwyn's assistant. You're so often with him, even were we speaking, I'd be hard-pressed to keep up with your doings, lad."

Which was true enough, and Peloren gladly fell to telling of his new duties, and not only to keep his mind off his bruised behind. Pages' training might be far simpler than that of esquires, but in many ways, it was more demanding, for all a knight's later work depended upon the groundwork of horsemanship laid during those early days. Aldan, at least, could easily appreciate the struggle involved in such a task, since he was little more advanced in many ways than the pages when it came to horses.

"That is why Master Théorwyn has me at the stables and in the ring all afternoon," Peloren told his friend. "Next week, I have to teach them something of repairing tack, too. I suppose I should count myself lucky—since Master Théorwyn moved me into a regular squad of knights to practice mounted work, I shan't have to endure his contribution to preventing a repetition of today's loss! Instead, I can worry about Tarondor taking my head off in the skirmish our company has planned for this Friday!"

"I suppose that means you never drill with Andrahar, if you are riding with a regular company," Aldan said, a little wistfully, as they took their laundry to their rooms for later cleaning, then headed for the hall.

"No, we always seem to pass each other coming or going," Peloren replied. "But I hear enough about him, and 'tis not as if I haven't got him as an instructor every day for Haradric. Valar, he'll be setting examinations for us in three weeks!" Which meant he was not going to be getting much sleep, even if he managed to stay off of any punitive rotations.

"How is he in the lecture hall?" Aldan asked.

"You have had him in the salle?" Aldan nodded. "He is actually worse when it comes to Haradric."

"Truly?"

"That is what Elethil tells me, and he ought to know: he has him every morning for sword practice and every afternoon for language." And every night, as the two of them yawningly pored over the sections that Peloren daily copied from the library's edition of Na Khuvati, Elethil would curse Andrahar's name, fluently and with fervor.

For as diligent as they were in their study of Andrahar's native tongue, their efforts seemed not to pay off in class.

"All of you keep dropping the blended aspirants," Andrahar was wont to reprimand them. "The difference between 'I esteem your honor highly' and 'I enjoy your mother greatly' is two blended aspirants that may be the difference between a truce and a knife in your gut!"

Peloren was careful to keep his head down during such moments, dutifully marking off the blended aspirants on his slate, though silently he cursed the language and often the instructor. Master Harthil had been a rather dry, dull lecturer, and utterly lacking in a sense of humor so far as Peloren had ever seen or heard tell of, but at least Harthil was not in love with the infernal language.

That Andrahar was so enamored had become apparent rather swiftly, despite the Southron's usual reticence where the more tender feelings were concerned. Andrahar, whom Peloren had rarely known to express a preference one way or the other for anything outside of weapons, warfare, and Imrahil's safety, was not the sort of lover to go about declaring himself at every turn. But even to Peloren's unsophisticated ear for Haradric, there was a resonance, a pleasing 'cleanness', for want of a better word, and a facility to the way he spoke that Peloren would not have expected given Andrahar's apparently lowly origins. He even managed the ridiculously long-winded sentences of the Na Khuvati with grace.

There could be no doubt about it—the Southron took pleasure not simply in the familiarity of his own tongue, but in speaking it well, and it pained him to hear it spoken badly.

Alas, most of the esquires spoke quite badly indeed, or only indifferently, and it went without saying that most of their accents would identify them immediately as Gondorians. Thus they continued to sweat over such things as cadence, caste-forms, aspirants (blended and otherwise), half-vowels, and the all-important control of breath that Haradric demanded, while trying to curb their most egregious errors of pronunciation.

Their efforts met with some limited success: a few of the older esquires, men who had come up from the infantry, seemed to be finding their feet in speaking, at least. And Torlas, much to Peloren's and Elethil's disgust, had actually developed something like a genuine accent, even if, according to Andrahar, he sounded like a merchant from Khambuluk rather than a lordling from Umbar.

The merchant from Khambuluk was, however, far preferable to the Gondorian from Anfalas....

"Pel? Peloren." Aldan's voice broke through his reflections at last, and Peloren shook himself, then looked over at the other questioningly. Aldan raised a brow. "I said, lad, that you still look rather pained. I think you ought to see the healers about that fall you said you took."

"I'll be fine," Peloren insisted. "It's just a bruise."

"Bruises hurt, too," Aldan replied, but then held up his hands as if in surrender. "Very well! I'll wish you luck and if you do manage to go without a visit to the Houses, I'll make good on Ornendil's drink on Friday."

"If I do manage it, I shall no doubt need that drink," Peloren sighed, then gave his friend a tentative smile. "I am sorry for what I said before in the laundry, Aldan, and sorry it has taken me so long to say it. You were only trying to help."

"And it seems that that is the one thing you make a habit of refusing," Aldan replied, easily enough. But then he touched Peloren's arm, drawing him to a halt just before they reached the hall, and his expression was serious. "I owe you an apology as well—I should not have spoken for you, 'tis true, though I think you do yourselves no favors, you and Elethil. But if that is how you like it, then so be it. I'll not say a word more about that. But if you grow tired of making this your own affair and none other's and want an ear or a few words, however poor the advice may be, then they're yours for the asking. But you will have to ask. Well, for the advice at least. We are all a part of the brotherhood of complaints, after all!"

Peloren smiled at that. "That is certainly true!" he acknowledged. "So... is that settled, then?"

"So far as I am concerned," Aldan replied, and held out his hand. They shook on it, then Peloren sighed again, as he leaned to one side and peered through the door at the esquires already wolfing down lunch. "Well," he said, grimacing in unhappy anticipation, "let us see how I do with the bench this time."


The answer to that was 'rather badly.' The hour of language instruction that followed was even more excruciating. Peloren suffered Andrahar's sharp admonitions not to fidget, and did as best he could to answer whenever a question came his way, but he resigned himself to a poor performance that day, distracted as he was. After an hour of writhing about in his seat, futilely seeking a comfortable position, and faced with the prospect of another hour of lecture and then an afternoon in the ring, pride bowed to pain and sent him to the Houses of Healing, where he endured the healers' humiliating examination of the affected area.

"You are not the first person in all history to come to us with a bruised tailbone, Peloren. It happens fairly often, actually, especially to horsemen," the attending healer told him, apparently attempting to put him more at ease. "All it needs is one bad fall, even if not at speed. Good thing you had some padding from the gambeson!"

In response, Peloren simply gritted his teeth and buried his face in his arms, feeling awkward and embarrassed with his trousers round his ankles, and more than just slightly uncomfortable as the healer gently prodded him.

In the end, the man called another healer to confer over him, and Peloren endured another round of prodding before the two agreed that indeed, he had bruised his tailbone, and began issuing instructions for the next two weeks. This included giving him a round pillow with a hole in the middle to sit upon, and instructions for Master Ornendil and Master Théorwyn to excuse him from regular practice until such time as the healers deemed him able to participate without risk of further injury.

"Here are some waterskins that you can take to the baths and fill with hot water. Lie on your stomach and apply them at the end of the day," one of the healers said. "Stand up whenever you can, drink at least twice as much as you would ordinarily, and come see us every other day in the evenings. If the pain has not greatly lessened in a week, then we will assume it is not simply a bruise, but that you have a fracture. But given what you have told us, I doubt that that is so—you should not have been able to finish the game or sit as long as you did if you had fractured the bone." Peloren sighed, resigned himself to the inevitable snickers, and accepted the waterskins, the notes, and the cushion, then departed, still with a flush to his face.

Master Théorwyn, at least, took the healers' instructions without fuss, and to his credit did not laugh. "It happens to the best of us," he said, tucking the note into his scrip. "You can teach the pages to keep their equipage in condition, and I'll have Darmel handle the rest until you can safely return to the ring."

"Thank you, sir," Peloren replied.

The Horsemaster, perceiving his glum mood, smiled. "'Tis not so bad—better to attend to such things sooner than later, though not everyone learns that lesson. And you ought to be exempted from extra formation drills for the next week, at least."

So I fear, Peloren thought, but said only: "I suppose I will be."


And indeed, he was. The masters might encourage stoicism, but they also let the healers rule them, for such was only wisdom. Ornendil had him sit (or rather, stand) on the sidelines and watch and listen while he and Illian and Andrahar instructed the other esquires that evening.

Afterwards, he waited until his classmates had gone ahead to the baths before he began making his pained way up to the castle, unwilling to be the object of envious, unfriendly looks. But he could not avoid them wholly—when he met Elethil later that evening to study, he was aware of a number of cool regards thrown in his direction.

As if I arranged to be hurt! Peloren thought, frustrated. But there was nothing he could do about such foolish notions, and so he turned determinedly to his lessons. Beside him, Elethil jerked suddenly, shaking himself. Clearly, he had been on the edge of falling asleep. Peloren gave him a gentle nudge with his elbow.

"We only have three weeks more before the first examination, Elya," he whispered.

"And in three weeks, I'll sit for it," Elethil muttered.

"And if you write or say something like that, you'll sit and fail," Peloren replied, tapping his pen beside a mangled sentence. "You're using an object genitive for a person there, and even so, it has the wrong ending—'Abandisjhan' starts with a full vowel. You cannot put 'ng' in front of a full vowel."

Elethil's jaw clenched, and he rubbed at tired eyes, then sighed and folded his arms flat on the table, laying his head upon them. "It is just one mistake, Pel!" he complained under his breath.

Peloren shifted uncomfortably, and not simply because his rear end ached. "You never used to make that sort of mistake, Elethil. Now you do it all the time. Andrahar is not going to be lenient, you know that!"

Rather to his surprise, instead of answering, Elethil, after a moment, rose suddenly, and began gathering up his notes and books. "I cannot concentrate here," he muttered shortly. "I will see you tomorrow, Pel."

With that, he departed. Peloren stared after him in surprise for several moments, then turned slowly back to his own work. But he did not begin again. Lifting his eyes from the pages before him, he glanced about the library's reading room, and watched as some esquires bowed their heads once more, while others stared openly at him. Celdir and Torlas had their heads together, Torlas whispering something to his friend, while Celdir gazed upon Peloren with a smile whose good humor was belied by the rather predatory gleam in his eyes. Clearly, the hounds sensed blood on the ground.

Peloren stared back, feeling for once wrath bolster sinking spirits, and after a moment, he, too, rose, collected his belongings, including the accursed cushion, and left, making for the Fledglings' Wing. He deposited his books in his own quarters, then went down the hall to Elethil's room and knocked quietly. "Elya? It's me. May I come in?" he called softly.

But there was no response from within, and although Peloren cursed softly in pain, he knelt down on the floor and peered under the door. No glow of light. If Elethil were within, he might possibly be asleep, in which case Peloren ought to leave him be, for his friend clearly needed the rest. On the other hand...

He is not well. The thought came blunt and certain to his mind. Esquires learned to live with a certain amount of exhaustion, for it was the nature of their training to test them to the limits of their endurance... and then demand more. But he had seen Elethil through such testing in the past, and this sort of moodiness, and the utter exhaustion that accompanied it—these were new and worrisome things, and Peloren could not but fret.

He is always weary, even in the mornings. And he doesn't have much appetite lately, not even at breakfast. And although he's never been gregarious, like Imrahil, he's never shut me out like this, either. His quiet friend had grown too quiet for his tastes, and as Peloren sought reasons for this change, he was guiltily aware that he had not spent as much time with him as he ought. It was inevitable, perhaps—with all the changes to his schedule, as Aldan had noted, it was harder to keep up with other esquires. He was not in Elethil's squad any longer, which made matters even worse.

But I should try to spend time with him. Save the one time, he never had many letters from home to keep him, but I think he has not had any since just before Yule, he thought. And it is not as if either of us have friends enough to be able to lose each other. But would Elethil even wish for his company, given his behavior lately?

While he contemplated the unhappy possibility that Elethil might actually rebuff such efforts, the sound of boot heels on stone floors sounded, drawing nigh, and Peloren glanced up to see Imrahil striding purposefully toward him. Embarrassed to be caught on his hands and knees in an empty hall, Peloren did his best to scramble to his feet, though pain hampered that effort, and Imrahil ended up having to help him, steadying and supporting him with a hand under his arm.

"My thanks," Peloren said, feeling his cheeks heat.

"I thought you were not supposed to be bending like that," the Heir admonished lightly. Before Peloren could think of a suitable excuse, Imrahil continued, "What's the matter with Elethil?"

"I... am not certain," Peloren admitted, with only a slight hesitation. "I was hoping he might tell me, but either he is not in, or he is asleep." Or he is ignoring me, his wretched inner voice added. He thrust that possibility aside, determined to wait upon clear evidence ere he let it lodge in his thoughts. He gazed at Imrahil a moment, then asked suddenly, "Where are your books? Were you not in the library?"

"I left them with Ambor and Hengrist," Imrahil replied. "I will return for them soon enough. But I saw you go after Elethil, and I wanted a word with both of you anyway, so I followed."

"What word?" Peloren asked, warily.

"I think you can guess," the Heir replied, but then asked anyway: "Why haven't you two spoken to one of the sergeants? Or the masters?"

"About what?" Peloren asked, immediately, habitually. Imrahil snorted.

"About everything, of course. You two are stretched tight as a wire and have been ever since I got back. I have been listening to the talk around the Wing—it's clear enough the others have been after you. What I do not understand is why you have not told the sergeants about it. They must ask!" Imrahil replied. "And then there is all this nonsense, as happened in the baths this afternoon. It could have been anyone who took a fall, but a man would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the others blame Elethil for the loss. Which is ridiculous, of course, we were all to blame, but blame seems to gather around the two of you, and around Elethil more than you."

"Imri," Peloren said, carefully, "you know how these things go. Of course they blame Elethil, and would blame me if they could—they are not happy to have us back among them."

"Unhappy is one thing; but I have heard rumors about pranks and suchlike last term—mostly from the younger esquires who haven't found a place with Celdir or Faldion yet, or else who simply defer more to me than to them," Imrahil retorted, and waved an impatient hand over such politic courtesies. "It is all very vague even so, but we are all familiar with the way matters go among esquires, who have been here for a few years. If the new lads will talk about it so guardedly, then it is worse than I am told, even though I have seen no pranks or the like since Ornendil's ban on them this term. But clearly the others do not care for you, and treat your poorly. Why, then, has nothing been done?"

"What would you have them do to make them respect two that they've no reason to respect?" Peloren said evenly, watching as Imrahil's eyes narrowed. "About some things, there is nothing to be done, Imrahil."

"This cannot go on," he began after a moment, but Peloren cut him off.

"Yes, it can. Because right now, there is nothing going on. We would like to keep it that way, Elethil and I," he said firmly, and tried to ignore the irony that the matter at hand had seen him reconciled with Aldan, only perhaps to quarrel with Imrahil. "Please do not try to make something of this. Whatever you have heard, forget it, for friendship's sake!"

"Strange you should say that, for though there are always many excuses between training and exhaustion, I fear I've not been as good a friend as I ought to be this term," Imrahil replied, and Peloren sighed. But he quickly answered:

"Then make amends now, if you have not been: let this go."

That Imrahil was not pleased with this response was evident, but at length, faced with intransigence, he sighed and spread his hands. "If you insist—"

"I do," Peloren replied quickly, then, on a moment's inspiration, held out his hand. "Promise me you will say nothing?"

"Pel," Imrahil protested, softly, but Peloren shook his head.

"Promise me, Imrahil!"

With a sigh and manifest reluctance, the Heir grasped his hand. "Very well. I shall say nothing. But promise me that you will seek an end to this 'nothing.'" Imrahil's grip tightened as he spoke.

"I shall. I am," Peloren replied, and Imrahil, with a grunt, nodded and released his hand.

"Good. Then why not come back with me, and get some work done? Although of course there is nothing and no one for you to retreat from in the library, I think you ought to return with me. Besides which, you cannot convince me that you could not use the help with Haradric!"

"But you have to study for the Rohirric—"

"I'll do well enough with it—I've always been good with languages, and besides, I've, ah, found someone who can help me with that a bit," Imrahil replied and smiled rather smugly.

"Oh? Who?" Peloren asked. For there were not so very many Rohirrim in Dol Amroth; most of them ended up in the more northerly provinces if they left their native land.

The smile broadened into a wicked grin. "Well, you see, 'Celebrindal' wasn't always so called—you have noticed her hair?"

Peloren stared at him. "You go to The Fairweather to get help with Rohirric?" he finally managed.

"Among other things, admittedly. But I'm as tired as anyone during the week. I'm not up for much of anything then. But she may not be there much longer, you know, and I pay for her time, so it helps her, it pleases us both, and she gives plenty of incentive to improve by the next rest day..."

Peloren rolled his eyes and gave his prince a cuff to the arm. "Unbelievable! Only you could get away with that, Imri!"

"You might be surprised. Bhelan is very sweet, and very... accommodating... and has a lovely Ta'alsheen accent." Imrahil draped an arm about his shoulders and began drawing him back towards the library. "Come along, we'll talk more of this—in Haradric. I could introduce you to her if you liked..."


In the end, despite a fairly prolonged, if halting, argument in Haradric, Peloren declined Imrahil's offer to introduce him to the enchanting Bhelan (at least for this week). But he did accept the offer to practice with Imrahil the next evening, and the Heir of course told him to bring Elethil if he could. Peloren, having promised to do so, went to bed, careful to lie on his stomach.

And despite being injured, the next fortnight was busy. In the mornings, he joined his fellow esquires for arms practice for the first time in weeks. Ornendil left Andrahar to set the pace and course of the other esquires' training, while he worked with Peloren on some carefully supervised exercises with weights before sending the wounded esquire off to the archery ranges until lunch. For archery he could do without hurting himself. Lieutenant Mardron of the Ninth Company, who ruled the ranges of Dol Amroth, and had been briefed upon Peloren's situation, had him practicing with a very heavy draw to help him keep up his strength. His aim was another matter—Peloren had never been a very good shot under the best of circumstances, and these were certainly less than ideal.

"You're not here to join our ranks, you're here to maintain your strength as much as you can, so you'll shoot with both hands equally," Mardron had told him. "Do your best. Just be certain to wait until the range is clear, and we'll try not to laugh too loudly." And credit to them, despite the predictable amusement of the regular members of the archery corps, no one laughed so hard he had not some helpful advice to give. Peloren was grateful for that, for he could leave the range at noon having felt he had done a decent day's work.

He attended the lectures after lunch as usual, standing in the back with his slate, but then instead of going to the stables, he followed Master Illian to his office, where he and two other esquires who had suffered more serious injury than most during the battle of Badhon, spent the rest of the time before supper laboring under Illian's tender mercies. The Master of Records, having consulted with his colleagues and the healers, had decided that if they could not perform their regular duties, they could at least sit (or stand) additional tactics lessons with him.

"While unmounted drills, like the one we just had, are necessary, and certainly will be of use for the shipboard duty we more and more often take, given the increasing boldness of the Corsairs, a knight needs to understand how horses change the order of battle on the ground," Master Illian said. "Let's look at the Rhûnic wars during Ondoher's reign, particularly the lack of cavalry available to oppose the opening strikes westward by Kygalac. I'll expect an analysis from each of you of each of these four battles by the end of next week. Let us begin with the battle on the plains north of Morannon…"

Despite the extra work, which had to meet Master Illian's exacting demands for precision, Peloren owned himself relieved. All such additional or alternative lessons meant he spent most of his time away from the cool gazes of his resentful classmates. He hardly dared to think what Elethil must be enduring from them.

Which was why, while Peloren dissected the sprawling, sometimes confused accounts of the battles he had been assigned, he kept an anxious eye on his friend in the evenings, who appeared to ignore his concern. This did not prevent him from falling asleep in the middle of their studies, though their nightly lessons with Imrahil helped.

The Heir's considerable personal charm did temper some of Elethil's moodiness for a time, but indefatigable as even Imrahil was, he could not draw Elethil out for more than an hour or two at a time, and that only to a degree. Though Elethil did try to rise to Imrahil's continual efforts to coax a properly Haradric sentence out of his two friends, his speech remained faltering and only haphazardly grammatical under pressure. And as the rest days came and went, and the weeks with it, even Imrahil could not prevent him from sinking into despondency.

"The examination is tomorrow," Elethil groaned, tossing his pen down on Imrahil's desk. The Heir had invited them to join him in his quarters that evening, where they could talk freely without disturbing others. Peloren, who had been given the bed to lie upon out of respect for his tailbone (though in truth, he suffered no real discomfort just from sitting anymore), glanced up from his notes. Imrahil, too, paused in his reading to stare, but Elethil did not notice, eyes closed as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

"You will manage," Peloren said, with as much confidence as he could muster, and then some.

"How am I going to 'manage' when I keep tripping over these blended aspirants? I'll end up saying something offensive, and Andrahar will gut me where I stand!"

"Andra knows the sorts of errors we weak-lunged Gondorians are prone to, Elethil," Imrahil said quietly. "He will not take any such personally."

"He'll still gut me. I don't know this. I don't know any of it!"

"Elya, you are not so bad as that! You have had two years of Haradric," Peloren reminded him.

"And none of it makes any sense right now! Valar, I am so tired, I could—" Elethil stopped abruptly then, leaning his elbows on the desk, and he pressed his face into his hands, breathing in deeply.

"What, Elya?" Imrahil asked quietly into the silence.

"Nothing," Elethil replied, lowering his hands, and he rose, gathering up his notes and book. "I need to set this aside for a time. But you should continue—do not let me stop you. I will see you tomorrow, Pel, Imri." So saying, Elethil let himself out, leaving Imrahil and Peloren to exchange concerned looks.

"Are you certain that you do not wish to tell me something of this 'nothing' that is not going on?" Imrahil asked after a moment.

"He has not had much success with Haradric this year, and frankly, even you ought to worry about sitting an exam with Andrahar," Peloren replied, rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. "He's merciless."

"Andra is rather... intense... when he sets his mind to something," Imrahil conceded. "But I am not convinced that that was only about Andrahar. And I thought you three had an understanding...?"

"We did speak. I am not certain an understanding was part of that conversation," Peloren said softly.

"What happened?" Imrahil asked, and Peloren, after considering and rejecting several replies, said simply:

"Nothing." He closed his eyes, hearing Imrahil sigh, a frustrated, puzzled sound. Peloren swung his legs off the bed and sat up, then rose. "I think," he said, "that Elethil had the right of it, whatever else his reasoning—I cannot study further tonight. I doubt I shall improve between now and tomorrow afternoon anyway."

"Perhaps not, but if you wished to stay and talk for a time..." Imrahil trailed off.

"No, not tonight, though I do thank you for your help, Imri. I should go to bed if I do not stay up to practice. I have a feeling tomorrow will be a very long day," Peloren replied, wearily, and then bid the Heir good night.


Later, he would have cause to wonder whether that comment had been spurred by more than ordinary foresight.

~ 0 ~


The next day began early, as most did. Yet despite anxiety over displaying his inadequacy as a speaker of Haradric, Peloren greeted it with anticipation. For as soon as he finished breakfast, he took himself off to the stables and then onto the field with his company for mounted drill, which Peloren was permitted to join in full for the first time since the unfortunate battle of Badhon Hill.

In the past six days, he had been slowly returning to regular practice at arms, though Ornendil had been careful to pair him only with himself or one of his instructors.

"We do not want you to risk another fall," the Armsmaster had told him. "And we do not wish to push you prematurely, so we will take matters slowly, on the healers' advice." Work had been slow and careful at first, but as pain receded, and he was able to move more and more freely, the pace had stepped up. Peloren had even sparred with Andrahar once, who, truth be told, had been no less careful with him than Master Ornendil. They had managed a civil discussion of technique, and then Andrahar had left him to another.

But yesterday, during his regular visit to the Houses, Kendrion, having taken a look at Peloren, questioned him closely, and then seen him through some testing movements, had cleared him to return to limited mounted work. "No jousting or skirmishing," the healer had cautioned. "And although I am told you are a wonder at it, stay away from the quintain, too. But you should be able to tilt. Only respect any pain you may feel, and stop when you begin to hurt."

"Yes, sir," Peloren had promised eagerly, anxious to rejoin the ranks. And he was certainly pleased this morning that he felt no pain as he put Lightfall through his paces. Still, his reprieve from the field had dulled his edge somewhat, and he found himself more breathless than he would have liked, and his pride a bit bruised for his poorer performance.

"You'll be fine, lad," Tarondor assured him. "You were not off the field that long, and you are too good a horseman not to come back quickly. Now, back into line, let us try it again!"

By noon, Peloren was beginning to believe Tarondor might be right, which was an encouraging thought, and so one much needed as he joined Imrahil, Aldan, Teilin, Ambor, and Elethil for lunch. Everyone was worrying about the impending examinations, for though such trials were not viewed in the same light as trials of arms, they could nonetheless interfere with the more important martial trials. No one wished to spend extra time with Illian and his instructors that might have gone to arms practice.

Talk at table was muted, therefore, and mostly restricted to discussions of grammar or vocabulary, little groups of esquires clustering together based on who studied which languages. Aldan and Teilin were reviewing their Sindarin. Teilin actually had his slate, with minutely traced notes crowded upon it, settled in his lap so he could read and eat at the same time, and consequently contributed little to any conversation. Ambor was rehearsing his Rohirric. And Imrahil questioned Peloren in Haradric, and tried to draw Elethil out as well. For his part, Elethil answered as laconically as he could, seeming quite subdued.

Eventually, the bells tolled one, and the esquires rose and began to file out to their different lecture halls. "Ready?" Peloren asked when they had reached theirs, and Elethil shook his head.

"Not at all," he replied, grimly, but nonetheless entered and took his seat.

Rather to the esquires' surprise, it was not Andrahar who awaited them, but Master Harthil. "Sit down," the instructor ordered, and they obeyed, hastening to get ink and pens and the allotted three sheets of paper out and ready. "You will have one hour to complete this, so do not dally." And he began dictating a question to them, while the esquires hurriedly copied it down.

The first part of the examination was not so bad—composition was a familiar task from years past, and at least allowed one the time to think about the question and how one might answer it, and then go back and correct one's mistakes. Peloren would never gain recognition for his style or eloquence, but it was not too repetitive and the script acceptably neat, and he used up his three allotted sheets with time to spare.

It was the spoken portion of the test that was the true challenge. At the end of the written examination, Harthil collected their efforts and held up a sheet of paper with their names written upon it. "Each of you has a quarter of an hour with me," he announced. "I expect to see you here with the bells, not after them. Be certain you are on time."

The esquires then gathered about the sheet laid upon a table, seeking their names. Peloren's name was ever near the head of any roster, so he was not much surprised to see that he had an early interview—the third man, right after Torlas. Elethil, he noted, was nearly the last name on the list.

"That gives you some time," Peloren murmured as he and Elethil left, and Peloren settled himself outside the door to the hall. There seemed little point in leaving only to return again in half an hour. "You could study."

"I know. I would almost rather be in your place, though," Elethil said heavily. But he hefted his books and said, "I'll be in the library, then."

"At least it is not Andrahar we have to face," Peloren said, by way of consolation, and Elethil bit his lip, face darkening unexpectedly.

"Why do you think that is?" he asked.

Peloren shrugged. "Mayhap Andrahar has some other duty that interfered. Or mayhap it is because he still reports to Master Harthil. Master Harthil has been by often enough to observe us all term, after all."

"I suppose." Elethil sounded skeptical of these possibilities, but then he dismissed such speculative inquiry with a wave of his hand. "I ought to go and take advantage of the time I have. I shall see you later, Pel."

"I'll come find you when you're done. Aldan, Imrahil and I are going to the Harp and Sails afterward. You should come with us," he invited.

"I'll think on it," Elethil replied non-commitally, then waved and made his way off towards the library, managing a civil enough nod for Torlas, who was also waiting about, leaning a shoulder against the wall. Torlas gave Peloren a distemperate look, then steadfastly ignored him. For his part, Peloren was content not to challenge that silence. Nevertheless, he was not grieved when the door opened and Torlas was called within, though that brought him nearer his own interview.

Some little time later, Torlas emerged, a thoughtful look upon his face. He gave Peloren a measuring stare, as if he were attempting to gauge somewhat. Peloren frowned at him, and despite his lack of enthusiasm for what was to come, hastily darted within the room and shut the door. Master Harthil glanced up from making a few notes on a sheet of paper.

"Ah. Sit down, Peloren," he said, in Haradric, of course. Peloren obeyed, taking a seat opposite the man. The thin-faced scholar gazed intently upon him a moment, then said, "I hear that you have found this term to be challenging. Tell me about it."

'Challenging.' Peloren felt his heart beat swifter and his palms felt suddenly sweaty. Was this a question asked of all esquires, or was Harthil fishing under the guise of testing his competence in a foreign tongue? He knew Harthil had questioned Elethil before, just before the end of the last term, and Elethil, though exhausted, had been alert enough to say a lot of careful nothing.

So do you the same, he told himself, and, taking another moment to organize his thoughts, replied, in his best accent: "I have found the pages to be challenging. It is hard to know how to teach them certain things because it is hard to remember when I did not know them, sir." Which was a dull sentence, and repetitively formed, but at least it was correct.

Harthil made a soft noise in his throat. "Please continue. What lessons do you find the most difficult to convey?"

So Peloren launched into a list of his duties and the various problems he had encountered as he struggled to discharge his duty to the pages, and so also to Master Théorwyn. Harthil nodded in the right places, asked a few questions, and once or twice required him to clarify something in such a way that Peloren realized he had gone beyond the bounds of his limited speaking ability and floundered into ambiguity or worse. Peloren was just beginning to relax, and to think that perhaps Harthil had no ulterior motive behind his original question when the scholar asked:

"You say that you have struggled to do your duty by Master Théorwyn, who entrusted you with the instruction of the pages. What of your duty by Andrahar? Or his by you? How have you found him as a teacher?"

Peloren froze. Esquires were almost never asked to comment upon their superiors' performance. It simply was not done. After all, whatever talk floated about campfires and barracks in an army, at the end of the day, there were those who commanded and those who obeyed, and esquires, just as any unranked knight, were bound to obey. Not for them to judge those set over them.

And though Andrahar held no official rank that would amount to anything on the battlefield or in a regular company, his place as Ornendil's assistant gave him authority over the esquires, and in just the field into which Harthil now inquired. Peloren could not but notice that the pen was once more in Harthil's hand, and suddenly, Torlas' look in the hall made sense.

Is he asking all of us about Andrahar? Peloren wondered, and wondered, too, whether that meant someone were displeased with the Southron's performance. Had there been complaints? Some lapse the masters had noticed? Or was it a test of some sort, an effort to try to glean from the esquires some sense of how things went between them and their unusual instructor, when none of them could fall back upon any native facility for subterfuge, Haradric hampering them from any plays that might disguise matters effectively?

And what should I say in any case? What should he say of one whom he had hated enough two years ago to violate every oath laid upon esquires? What should anyone say who had done such a thing to one of his fellows? I do not know. That was honesty, and yet it made something in him cringe, and he felt a flutter of shame that he had as yet nothing to say.

But these were things he would not share with Master Harthil, save under severe duress. And he has not asked after for them anyway, Peloren reminded himself. He has asked after Andrahar as a teacher. What should I say, there? There was surely plenty Peloren might have of Andrahar in that regard, yet mindful of his oath, he dared not give his tongue a free reign. If he owed his fellow esquires perfect courtesy in the face of insult and worse, how much more did he owe it to one set over him! And this was Andrahar, whose bad history with Peloren was by no means secret—would even a legitimate complaint be seen as aught more than the continuation of their quarrel?

"I hope," he replied at last, speaking slowly and as carefully as he knew how, "that Sir Andrahar has found me... honorable... in my duty towards him. I find languages difficult, however, so perhaps he may be displeased." Valar, that was awkward! But he dared not say more than was literally true.

"I see. And how has he responded to your troubles with the language?"

"He speaks very well. He tries to show us how we ought to speak."

"And the subjects he chooses? You find them appropriate?"

Appropriate? Peloren cast his mind back over the past several weeks and tried to think of anything that had caught his attention. The Na Khuvati were excruciatingly dull and difficult, and much of Andrahar's time was spent trying to explain the matter (or getting the esquires to explain the matter) in a more straightforward fashion, and then correcting the errors that arose from his pupils' efforts to handle such lengthy, complex sentences. He had told them a little about Umbar and Bakshir that Peloren recalled, but mostly things that pertained to this or that khan or captain or war.

"He tells us about the history we read," Peloren said after a moment. "It helps to hear it said more simply."

"I see," Master Harthil replied, and scribbled something indecipherable upon his sheet of paper. "And he has not asked anything of you that seemed beyond the reach of either history or language?"

"I... no, sir, I do not believe so, sir. Although," Peloren said, and risked the admission, "I am not certain that I understand the question."

"Do you not?" Harthil raised a brow, but then he waved a hand, seeming to dismiss the whole inquiry. "It was perhaps badly phrased. But thank you, Peloren, you may go now."

Peloren rose, bowed, and made his way out, feeling quite confused and more than a little suspicious. What was that about? he wondered, as he emerged into the hall and held the door for the next victim. The whole episode had been decidedly odd and uncomfortable, and Peloren still was not sure what Harthil had been driving at, or what he could have wanted or expected from such a set of questions. Not that Peloren felt any liking for Andrahar, but he found himself uneasily in sympathy with him, for all that Andrahar might well know nothing of Harthil's inquiries.

When it comes time for them to sit an exam, will Master Théorwyn ask the pages about me, then? he wondered. Was this usual for new assistants and instructors? Peloren did not think so, for he could not remember being asked to give any sort of opinion about Evarin or Darmel or any of the Armsmaster's assistants or the instructors whom Master Illian oversaw.

Disturbed, he sought out Elethil, intending to warn him, but his friend, despite his words, was not in the library. Nor did he answer Peloren's knock upon his door, and having no idea where he might have gone, Peloren decided to return to the stables. He needed something to shake the fog from his head and calm him down, and a ride with Lightfall and perhaps another few rounds of the tilting yard would help settle him. He would try to catch Elethil on his way to the exam, and if he missed him, at least he would wait and ask him afterwards how it had gone.

Lightfall seemed glad to see him again, though they had worked earlier in the day. The gelding was apparently restless as his master was, and for the next little while at least, Peloren managed to banish his concerns over the examination, focused as he was on collecting rings as Lightfall darted through the course. By the time the bells struck two, alerting him to the need to return if he was to try to speak with Elethil before his turn with Master Harthil, he was just a little sore, the result of a combination of time off and injury, but it truly was a minor discomfort and Peloren paid it no heed as he hastily stabled and brushed Lightfall down.

He dashed back up to the keep, bypassing the library and aiming straight for the lecture hall. A rather anxious esquire was pacing before Harthil's room and looked up in surprise at his arrival. Peloren cursed inwardly.

"Uilovar," he asked, "have you seen Elethil?"

"Aye," Uilovar replied, and gestured to the closed door. "We were the last two. Master Harthil has him before me, though." Peloren bit his lip. "Why? Is something the matter?" Uilovar gave him a close, searching look.

"I do not know," Peloren replied honestly. And since Uilovar was now regarding him with queer suspicion, he said, by way of partial explanation: "You may hear some odd questions. Just... take them in stride. That is all I wished to say."

Uilovar grunted and shrugged. "It's all odd to me," he murmured and lapsed back into silence, seeming absorbed in his own thoughts. But now Uilovar stood leaning against the wall while Peloren took his place and paced before the door, impatiently awaiting his friend.

After what seemed an eternity, the door finally did open, and Elethil emerged, looking troubled and upset. Uilovar breathed in deep, managed what might have been a sympathetic nod for Elethil, and went to take his turn before Harthil. Peloren pounced upon his friend.

"What happened? Are you all right?" Peloren demanded.

"Just wait a moment," Elethil growled in response, leaning back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Peloren bit his lip, but he did not press his friend, unwilling to add to his unhappiness. For some time, they stood there in silence, Elethil with his eyes downcast and face flushed, Peloren anxiously waiting, trying not to fidget as the minutes crawled by.

But at length, Elethil shook his head, and he shoved himself away from the wall. "Let us go," he muttered, voice taut.

"Elya? How did it go?"

"I don't know," came the curt response.

"What happened in there?" Peloren pressed, as the two of them began moving down the hallway.

"I have no idea what happened."

"What do you mean?"

Elethil gave an exasperated sigh. "Just that! I don't know what happened! I don't know what he wanted—half the questions were about some obscure Khandian intervention in some Bakshir sect we barely talked about two weeks ago, the other half were about Andrahar!" Elethil fumed. "I don't remember half of the things about Khand—I thought we were dealing with Harad. And as for Andrahar... what was I supposed to say?"

"So he asked you, too," Peloren murmured, wondering what this meant. Elethil, however, barely registered his words, eyes fixed on the floor as he walked, and continued:

"Even if I thought any of the masters wanted to hear from me about him, how should I have answered? I try not to think of him when I can avoid it, and when I do... I suppose Master Harthil might have given some marks for vocabulary if I told him I thought Andrahar was na khai'ivar chakh ve—"

"Elethil!" Peloren hissed in horror, but it was too late. Elethil glanced up at him, then followed Peloren's rather stricken gaze to the object of his horror, and all the color drained from his face.

Before them stood a dark-clad form that hovered like a shadow on the wall. Andrahar had just come about the corner they were approaching and come to a halt there. Narrowed dark eyes were fixed upon them, and although he bore no weapons that they could see, the hands clenched at his sides were white at the knuckles. Clearly, he had heard Elethil, and if ever Peloren had wondered what fury looked like, he need wonder no more for it had a face now. Black eyes flashed dangerously as the Southron deliberately folded his hands behind his back and stalked forward, right up to Elethil, who quailed, holding up his own hands as if to try to gain distance enough for an explanation.

Andrahar, however, was having none of it. "One word, Elethil, and you shall regret it," he said flatly, which effectively silenced him. "So I am a fatherless gelded pig, am I? Were those your words?"

There was absolutely no way to answer that—to say 'no' was to lie, to say 'yes' was an insult, and there was no way to remain silent. And the moment he says a single word... Peloren felt his heart sink. Elethil had the look of a trapped animal; his lips parted, but in the end, he did not speak. He simply nodded miserably.

In the blink of an eye, Andrahar had him up against the wall, and Elethil gasped as a stiff forearm pinned him there. For all that Elethil was the taller of them, there was no question who would win this fight should it come to that, and for a queasy moment, Peloren feared it might well end that way. But even as the hard-won habits of his training spurred him to follow, intending to intervene, Andrahar glanced sharply left at him and snapped:

"Stay back, Peloren!" And such was his tone that Peloren obeyed without thinking, even as Andrahar turned back to the esquire he had braced up against the wall.

"So you've time to learn to denigrate but not to learn to say one proper, civil sentence, is that it?" he demanded harshly, face dark with anger. His fingers fisted in the front of Elethil's tunic, as he lowered his voice to snarl, "If you have aught to say to me, then say it in your own tongue, Elethil—do not pollute mine by putting its words in your mouth to insult me! Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir!" Elethil managed, and for his trouble got another stiff forearm to the chest, pinning him forcibly to the wall.

"Then see that you learn next week's lessons so well as your curses! And I warn you," Andrahar's voice grew flatter yet, "play false to me again, esquire, and I will have you in front of the Armsmaster for insolence and deceit!" With that, and a disgusted growl, Andrahar stepped back, gave each of them an absolutely withering glare, then turned and strode quickly away.

Elethil, meanwhile, slid down the wall to sit with his knees pulled up to his chest and his head bowed over them, seeming to collapse in on himself. Shaken, but less so than his friend, Peloren approached and knelt before him, laying a gentle hand upon his shoulder. "Elya?"

A muffled oath reached him, and then Elethil looked up, his face a rictus of too many sorts of pain for Peloren to bear. He looked away, then got an arm under Elethil's shoulders and pulled him to his feet. "Come on," he murmured; "Let us go."

Intent as he was upon getting Elethil to walk with him, he did not notice Uilovar staring after them. Having been dismissed by Harthil after a swift interview, Uilovar had emerged into the hall to find a close-faced Andrahar waiting to enter, whose chilly demeanor had inspired him to step aside quickly. Doing so had put him in the corridor just in time to see Peloren help Elethil up from the floor. Uilovar stared at them a moment, then glanced right at the ominously shut door, ere he decided that whatever was afoot, he did not want to be a part of it. Esquires who did not learn when to put their heads down generally had them hewn off and handed messily back to them by irate sergeants and officers, and this seemed the moment for that better part of valor.

But of course, while survival was certainly an art the esquires learned, it was not the final law of fraternity. No scandal keeps forever, and soon enough, the rumors would begin...

~~~

Author's Notes: To my knowledge, the name of the commander of the Easterling confederacy known as the Wainriders is never given in Tolkien's corpus.

On tailbones: Admittedly possibly too short a recovery period for poor Peloren, but I based my timeline off of this thread, since it seemed that every other site was either giving information about extreme, chronic pain that lasted for years or months, or else was fairly vague on recovery times. I also found University of Illinois Medical Center's website to be helpful.


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