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7
Tribulations

Some hours later, in a small, lamp-lit room:

Task: Explain the military significance of the Khaltu'un regency for Umbar, citing the accounts of M'halekh, Torhanakhat, and Ul-sahan the Ta'alsheenite. Comment on the latter's use of the middle voice to achieve his rhetorical aims.


The Khaltu'un regency arisen after the assassination of the Khadhar in order to leaving his infant heir and three illegitimate sons…


Andrahar paused in his reading, turning the pen in his hands, and he gave the offending essay before him a look of utter disgust. He did not dare flip the pages over to discover who had written it, for fear that the knowledge might rouse an insurmountable prejudice in him against the writer. With three glaring errors in the opening two clauses, the author had already earned his ire and the thought of having to read the rest inspired a strange sort of dread-imbued lethargy, as if his mind sought escape in oblivion.

Be reasonable! he rebuked himself, as he shook himself and forced his attention back to the page. 'Tis but a few slips of paper. What matters it if some esquire cannot distinguish a participle from the imperfect? Or mistakenly uses an instrumental case?

No doubt it mattered little in the end, and that was the truly galling part that stuck in his craw—that it mattered so uniformly little, that what was so near him, so much in him, should be worth so little. No more than a few curses, he thought, savagely. That knowledge had driven him to the salle, with but a brief detour to his chambers to toss the compositions Master Harthil had given him upon his desk. Once in the salle, he had spent a great deal of long pent up fury on a pair of hapless pells, 'til one of the sandbags had actually ruptured.

For he had not imagined, when he had accepted his duties, that the teaching of his own tongue should come to be so bitter a thing to him. He had thought, if anything, that sword-work would be more frustrating, for lives were at stake there, and surely he did not wish to bear the blame for a needless death. And he did worry about that, but nevertheless, failure in the salle or on the field somehow did not touch him so closely as a poorly formed sentence.

For in the end, no one disagreed that it was of the utmost importance that sword-play be properly learned, whereas so far as he could tell, he might be the only one to whom it mattered that proper Haradric be respected. Not even Master Harthil seemed to care, for all his fluency, or how else was it possible that the esquires could be so painfully bad after two years with him?

How could they be otherwise? Andrahar wondered caustically. Of course they were terrible! They read Na Khuvati; they had learned some of the duller histories in the library to judge by their references. And most inexcusably of all, they read awful poetry, as he had had the misfortune to discover when he had asked them to recite anything they knew of Haradric verse. Peloren had given him some doggerel about pomegranates that had been so ridiculously sentimental and badly paced, Andrahar had actually found the volume he claimed it had come from and read through it in a fit of morbid curiosity.

But there was nothing he could do to correct any of that. Harthil had taken him to task after that lesson. "There are certain things the esquires must learn, and that they have, for the most part. As for the rest, keep to what I have given you. Leave the poetry aside, 'tis a distraction," he had ordered flatly.

A distraction from what? Andrahar had wondered at the time, though he had of course obeyed, if not happily. But slowly, over the course of the term, he had come to realize something: Harthil might be fluent, and he might be knowledgeable, and certainly none could doubt his dedication to Gondor; but fundamentally, he did not care for the language and he deeply mistrusted its people, and that colored all his teaching, for all he also clearly cared for the esquires.

And he cared very much that they not fall prey to fascination. Thus there was nothing of poetry in his lectures, for that was a distraction from the central fact: the Haradrim were the enemy, and for very good reason. Their service to the Dark Lord of course came first, but corruption bred in the very language they spoke—thus fluency must be carefully acquired. So Andrahar guessed, for Harthil had observed nearly every lecture, and Andrahar could not help but feel that he was less concerned that the esquires learn well from him than that they not hear anything that might tempt them to think well or better of the language that had a word for such abominable things as "shield-mates."

Either Harthil had succeeded better than he knew in inculcating his dislike, or else he had had no need to worry in the first place: if Elethil were any measure of the esquires' view of the matter, Haradric was good for little, save insults. Andrahar supposed he might go to Illian for help, but he doubted that the Master of Records had meant to suggest he would entertain so drastic a proposition as "Find a new instructor in Haradric!" Nor was there any way to validate his sense of being set up to fail as an instructor with the impossible works Harthil was assigning. The former seemed far too close to complaining of one set over him, and the latter was likely to garner more concern for his own perceptions than investigation into Harthil's motivations. And so tonight, rather than seek out Illian, he had instead pummeled one of the sandbags 'til it split a seam near the bottom, sending sand everywhere.

Cleaning up after that mishap had taken some time, and by then, the numbness that came of prolonged, jarring exertion had worn off somewhat, and he could feel the ache of bruises forming along forearms and shins, and his hands were a bit stiff, too. He had also missed supper, but feeling in no mood for company, had counted that a boon.

Once he had washed up, he had returned to his room and settled at his desk, determined to be done with the thankless task of evaluating his students' efforts before dawn. After all, if it meant so little to them to learn anything of his native tongue, then he saw no reason why he ought to spend overmuch time on their poor work.

Unfortunately, if the esquires, and even their instructor, rated Haradric as less important than other matters, he could not so easily mime their disregard. Tortured prose cried out for correction, but also numbed thought as effectively as beating his head against a pell, drawing out the unhappy process of evaluation. No doubt that explained how he had managed to read the same sentence three times without understanding a word of it. That, and the fact that it was missing a verb and a few key words were in the wrong cases.

With a growl, he tossed the pen aside and straightened in his chair. Laying his hands upon his knees, he drew a deep breath and let it out, seeking to empty his mind, as before a sparring match. I will finish this chore tonight, he thought, silently reiterating his vow. Not for you to make more of this than they do. He drew another breath, held it a moment, let it out, repeating his aim to himself. If 'tis naught to them, then let it be naught to you. Be still and focus…

Alas, it was not to be. A knock sounded on his door just then, jolting him out of that fragile calm, and the curse escaped his lips before he could stop it. The knock repeated, and even as he sighed and rose to answer it, his unexpected visitor called to him.

"Andra? It's Imri. Are you in?" the Heir asked, urgently.

Frowning, for he had expected Imrahil would be out with the other esquires tonight, drowning their fears in ale or else drinking to their successes, Andrahar opened the door. "Imrahil? What brings you?" he asked.

"You, frankly," Imrahil replied. Then, glancing quickly over his shoulder, he lowered his voice to ask: "May I come in? This is not something for the hallway."

Andrahar's frown deepened at that, but he did step quickly aside. "What matter?" he demanded, when the Heir had slipped within, and he had closed the door firmly behind him. "Shouldn't you be off with the others?"

Imrahil sighed and lifted steepled hands to his face, scrutinizing Andrahar over the tips of his fingers a long moment. Finally: "Even as you told me once, my tale can wait, for I need to ask you something. You will not like it, but I must have an answer from you, Andra. What just happened between you and Elethil and Peloren?"

The Heir was right: Andrahar did not at all care for this question, feeling anger flare swiftly. It took him a moment to master it sufficiently to ask in turn, "What did they tell you?"

Somewhat to his surprise, however, Imrahil shook his head sharply. "No," he replied. "I need your answer. What happened?"

Andrahar did not immediately reply, unwilling to involve Imrahil in this unpleasant affair, and not only out of a stoic habit of privacy. For however little might separate him from the esquires in terms of age and experience, still, he felt he should not speak of them to one of their peers, that such would be… inappropriate… of him. Alas, Imrahil's friendship made it hard to refuse such discussions entirely, and especially where Peloren and Elethil were concerned, Andrahar felt thoroughly conflicted, desire to speak warring with the sense that there, especially, he must remain silent.

But clearly the other would not leave without a response, and so, reluctantly, he replied, "I happened upon them in the hall. There were some… ill-considered words aired carelessly, and perhaps I was more intemperate in my response than—"

"Andra," Imrahil interrupted him, brow knitting with puzzlement and concern, "what are you doing?"

"I am telling you what happened."

"No, you're not," the Heir replied. "You are talking around it, which is hardly like you, and that worries me."

"It is not your concern—" Andrahar began, only to be interrupted again.

"So I am told—repeatedly!" Imrahil said, somewhat heatedly. "I must say, I am beginning to weary of that excuse!"

"It is not an excuse, it is the truth!" Andrahar shot back.

"What is true is that I have friends who seem bent on making each other miserable, and it does not seem to occur to them that this might be worrisome for those who care for them!"

"This is not about you, Imri!"

"No, it is not," his friend agreed, tone still sharp. "It is about what happened between you and Elethil and Peloren this evening."

"Then go back and ask them to explain it, for I will not," Andrahar declared flatly, and turned away. Behind him, Imrahil sighed.

He did not, however, leave, and after a few moments, the Heir recounted slowly, "You were in the hall, you said. And so were they. And the three of you had words. One or both of them foolishly said something probably insulting… perhaps not intentionally? And you were then… intemperate… when replying to them. What does that mean, 'intemperate'?"

"What do you think that it means?"

"I do not know! Andra," Imrahil's voice took on a bit of a desperate tone, "you were the one who told me before term began that you were not certain whether you wished them to fear you or not. Now I find that they are terrified of you, Elethil most of all, and none of you will speak plainly about anything that has to do with the three of you. How should I judge what 'intemperate' means, given all that?"

It was an all too reasonable question, put in that light, which was more than somewhat unsettling. Nevertheless, something in it struck him uncomfortably wrong. Very uncomfortably wrong, as, unbidden, the memory of how Imrahil's hand had felt upon his flesh two years ago returned with such vivid force he fancied he could almost feel it again. I would do anything… absolutely anything at all.

"To be offered anything is to be thought to balk at nothing," Andrahar's father had warned him, again and again. "There is no virtue without limit."

A shiver went up his spine then and he turned back abruptly, gazing at Imrahil through narrowed eyes. "My turn," he announced, with no preamble. "What are you afraid of, Imrahil, that you feel a need to ask me such a question?"

"I am worried what passed between you—"

"No," Andrahar interrupted, voice hardening as that splinter of insight worked its way free finally. "You are worried I may have done something to them, or to Elethil." And when Imrahil made no reply, he continued, feeling his certainty wax, and with it, his outrage: "That is it, is it not? What do you imagine? That I struck him? That I hurt him somehow or threatened to? That I overstepped the bounds between an instructor and a student?"

"It is just that I am concerned—"

"Gondor may be a land of loose-living out-castes, Imrahil, but I am not one such!"

At that, Imrahil's eyes went wide, and he paled a bit. Unlike so many of Andrahar's students, Adrahil's son was well-schooled in Haradric and the ways of those who spoke it. And so he knew perfectly well that in a world that made every effort to define a place for every man, and to hold every man relentlessly to his place, where The Rules governed all congress, whether between castes or within one, whether it took place in the great halls, in the streets, or between the sheets, and where there could be no greater sin than to transgress them—in such a world, mahar-din—'out-caste'—was arguably the worst insult the Haradric language furnished its children with, lower even than 'slave,' and certainly the most horrific of realities that could be visited upon one.

And Imrahil knew also that Andrahar, of all people, had good cause to know, with awful precision, the depth of that horror, having become just that when he had escaped bondage to land upon the streets, where any man might have slain him and owed nothing to anyone for his life, not even recompense to a master for the loss of his service. For what worth had an out-caste, who would not find his dignity in his place, but who might do any despicable thing, in violation of all right order?

The Heir was quick, therefore, to retreat, protesting: "Andra, I never thought you were!"

"But that is where you put me with your questions nonetheless," Andrahar snapped. "I suppose I should be glad 'tis questions only—it might be someone's fists again. Or Harthil's insinuations. Or mayhap an open hand where it does not belong?"

Imrahil winced, but he also shook his head. "That is not fair," he said softly.

"No, 'tis not fair. Go drink a toast to the world's injustice—I have work to do," Andrahar retorted caustically. Imrahil hesitated, but only for a moment, before he bowed his head and left quietly, leaving an ugly sort of silence in his place. Andrahar remained where he was a little while, but then slowly returned to his chair and took up the pen again.

Some hours more he worked at whittling away the pile of papers before him, pausing only to add a little more oil to the lamp towards the end. Lines of neatly marked corrections found their way onto the pages, and this time, the errors themselves did not upset him. They were simply dealt with and set aside for the next batch. Nothing focused the mind like a need for distraction from other and worse troubles, after all.

When he had finished with all of them, he set them all in order, leaving the latest few spread out over his desk so the ink would dry properly, and he made his way to bed. But though it had been a long day, longer, even, than was his wont, Andrahar could not sleep immediately. He lay awake, staring into the darkness of his chambers, wondering what he would do with the complaint he had made Imrahil as he reflected on his time in Gondor.

His first year in Dol Amroth had been fearful, though many might have missed that, seeing only a slavish devotion in him that had been quick to demand the duties, however lowly, he saw as his. For despite a gift for tongues that had considerably eased the shock of life in a foreign land, Dol Amroth had been a shock nonetheless. Though hardly a provincial rustic, to be amazed and confused by court life and its amenities, he had felt out of place and, in a way, more vulnerable than he had on the streets of Hurrhabi, which were at least familiar to him.

Imrahil had been the one star in his sky to guide him then, his oath to the young prince the one thing he could be certain of. For he had meant every word he had said when he had dared to swear himself to Imrahil—in defiance of all right thinking and propriety, as he had ever been taught. Out of gratitude for his life, Andrahar had sworn away what little and (to Haradric ways of thinking) worthless freedom he had had. Out of his own sense of honor, and later (not much later) out of love, he had done all he could, injured or not, to render his debts in full in what seemed to him the proper manner.

But beneath all such fine feeling, he had been driven also by fear—fear that he might lose the one place he possessed and find himself adrift in a world that frankly did not seem much to want him in it. That fear had been slow to ebb, despite the fact that it had swiftly become apparent that Imrahil had absolutely no intention of casting him off. Not even after the uncomfortable, terrifying exercise in honesty, when Andrahar had had to confess himself a lover of men by nature, not simply by force of circumstances, to his oath-bonded lord. Imrahil's easy acceptance of him in that matter, flying as it did in the face of all right custom in Gondor, had been a sort of final proof that there had been no need to fear, so long as the Heir lived.

Yet fear had remained, though buried deeply enough that even he had overlooked it. Intent upon his place as Imrahil's bondsman, confident in Imrahil's favor at least, more familiar at length with Dol Amroth and its ways, and with the chance to be what he had always hoped to become—an armsman in a lord's retinue—his world had not had room enough for such fear. He had exiled it, along with overmuch concern for the hostility of other esquires, assuming that ferocity at need and a steadfast refusal to be goaded would serve him, as it had in Umbar's back alleys.

Perhaps he should have realized that with the streets so close, he had not gone very far from the fear they bred in him. But then again, he was in Gondor, which was quite strange enough to make him feel every league of distance between Dol Amroth and Umbar. And then there was Imrahil—beautiful, bold, and brilliant enough to convince him there was nothing in the only half-heeded shadow that lay uneasily upon his heart. Peloren and Elethil had helped Valyon teach him that the shade was thicker than he had thought, and though he could not complain of Adrahil's treatment of him, or of Aerandir's, or of Thorongil's, or of Barcalan's, or even of the masters', their good will was apparently not enough to banish anxiety, nor to prevent Harad from once again coming unexpectedly home to him in the worst ways.

Andrahar sighed softly. He should have seen it coming. But just as Imrahil had eclipsed Valyon and the others, he had allowed the strangeness of his new home to blind him to the points where Gondor and Harad closed ranks against him. In the absence of clear castes and rules in Gondor, in the absence of even a word that matched the vileness of mahar-din, to say nothing of lacking people to inhabit that ugly condition, it was harder for one accustomed to the Haradric genius for order to recognize what would have been starkly apparent in Harad. Everything was so inconsistent here—some treated him well, others were not opposed to him at least, and then of course there were the rest, but there was no telling how things might go with those either above or beneath him, and he was uncertain still whether he had peers, precisely. All men might have a place in Gondor, but the boundaries of that place seemed… fluid. Untrustworthy. Permissive of all manner of disorderly familiarities that would scandalize a well-bred lord in Harad.

But he had grown used to that, or so he had thought, and within the bounds he had made for himself, others did not trouble him. And so Imrahil's artless inquiry tonight had caught him by surprise, and his sense of betrayal, the feeling of gross upheaval in his narrow world, had shaken his blinders loose, given him a new look at his frustrations and discomfort since returning to Dol Amroth. Harthil's blatant, bigoted mistrust; his own irritation with certain compliments that on the face of things should have bothered him not at all; the court gossip; the polite but distant relationships with others of his company, to say nothing of the ones that were only polite on the surface; his reaction to Peloren and Elethil this evening, who had certainly said nothing he had not heard before, if never in his native tongue in Gondor—all of it fell quite suddenly into place. Gondor might lack the word for out-caste, but there were other ways to make a man feel his lack of place.

The question, as he lay restlessly twisting a corner of one of his blankets in his hands, was what to do about it. One did not lightly cry 'out-caste', even in Harad, not even among enemies, and certainly not among friends. He was barely a knight, barely blooded, and his position as Ornendil's assistant and as a very junior instructor hardly gave him ground to stand upon and speak before others more senior and worthy of respect. Worse, if asked to justify his claim, he knew he would find it hard to persuade anyone on any specific account—it was everything, the whole situation, and so, in a way that rather confused and perplexed him, it was also somehow nothing at all. He could not catch hold of the substance of the complaint, for it was like smoke—to Gondorians, no doubt it would be more like steam, and so even less visible.

And Imrahil never meant to give me any insult. Whereas Andrahar was guiltily aware that he had certainly intended to wound with his mention of Imrahil's unpleasant attempt upon his virtue, and he knew his own reasons to be less than pure. So he came on their behalf. What of it? 'Tis Imrahil—he looks after his friends, he told himself insistently, but could not quite hide from himself, or the stain of jealousy on his own sense of betrayal…

He sighed again. He had violated the seal of their reconciliation simply by bringing it up. Whether or not he was justified in his present anger, he had said, and so tacitly promised, that they would not speak of that shameful incident again. And Andrahar was not one to break his word.

I will need to apologize to Imrahil for that, and as soon as I may, he thought. It would be awkward, and he glumly resigned himself to it, for there was no help for that. Their periodic arguments had never gone so deep before, nor had Andrahar ever felt so conflicted in his opposition, caught between a still lively anger with his oath-brother, who had managed to crystallize his sense of grievance on the one hand, and the desire for his counsel in this matter on the other. For if there were anyone in Dol Amroth who might listen and try to understand, to help him, it was Imrahil.

And beyond any desire for Imrahil's counsel, beyond any desire for help, there was the desire for him, and for his friendship, for Andrahar had not so many friends that he could afford to lose one. Especially not this one.

With that rather sobering thought in mind, Andrahar shut his eyes and abandoned himself to uneasy dreams.


As a rule, Imrahil slept late on rest days, unless Andrahar or some task dragged him forth from his chambers before mid-morning. Andrahar himself was usually up with the dawn, but after a late and frustrating night, to say nothing of that rather exhausting last session in the salle, the young knight did not stir 'til perhaps an hour past cock's crow, when the bells woke him. After a moment spent contemplating whether he ought to seek out Imrahil immediately, or wait until the Heir showed himself, Andrahar decided to wait until Imrahil emerged of his own volition. In the mean time, he could at least spend a little time practicing. Though perhaps, he thought, as he examined the bruises on his forearms and knuckles that had come of last night's abuse of the pells, he would avoid full-contact bouts.

However, it was not to be. He had barely stepped past his door when someone called out to him: "Andrahar! A moment, please."

Andrahar turned to see Barcalan striding towards him. "Good day, sergeant," he offered, but gave the older man a longer look than was his wont, for Barcalan seemed none too pleased. Indeed, he had the gravely controlled expression of one whose duty brought him no joy this morning.

"Good day," the sergeant returned his greeting, but then added almost immediately, "I have been sent to find you, Andrahar. The masters want a word."

There was only one acceptable response to such a summons, and it was not "Why?" So Andrahar inclined his head instead. "Yes, sergeant," he replied obediently, and mentally crushed underfoot the desire to ask after the matter, though unpleasant suspicion flared immediately.

Fortunately, that seemed to satisfy Barcalan, who gave him a brisk nod, ere setting course for Ornendil's office. Andrahar fell in at his side, but he did not speak, and the sergeant did not trouble himself to try to make conversation.

It was a long, silent walk down the keep's corridor, therefore, or else the silence made it long. But at last, they reached Ornendil's door, just around the corner from the Fledglings' Wing. Barcalan rapped twice in warning, waited a moment, and then opened the door, waving Andrahar within. He himself did not enter, but shut the door, and Andrahar could imagine the sergeant taking up guard beside it. The image did nothing to quell his anxiety.

Nor did the rather solemn assembly that awaited him: Master Ornendil was seated behind his desk, with Masters Théorwyn and Illian ranged along the eastern wall. On the western wall stood a lone and empty chair.

"Have a seat, Andrahar," the Armsmaster said, gesturing to it. The polite tone, however, did not fool Andrahar into believing it was an invitation. Once he had seated himself, Ornendil continued: "I wish we had a more pleasant reason to speak, but certain complaints and questions have arisen that make it necessary to ask you here, that they may be answered."

"What complaints, sir, if I may ask?" Andrahar replied, careful to keep his voice even and low.

"Would you read this, please?" Ornendil proffered a sheet of paper, and Andrahar leaned forward to take it from him. He recognized the hand almost immediately: Harthil's. Well, he mused, I might have expected this. He had assumed that Harthil's mistrust of him had led him abruptly to take Andrahar's place as examiner yesterday. While frustrating, it was not entirely unheralded, and Andrahar had acquiesced, having no grounds upon which to object if Harthil desired to test the esquires himself. He was, after all, the one who was ultimately responsible for the them. Apparently, however, Harthil had been motivated by something more definite than he had let on yesterday…

Andrahar read swiftly, therefore, seeking that unknown motive. Certainly, there was plenty in the writ about Harthil's concerns over his fairness and suitability for such work, but nothing surprising or novel, given the man's obviously bigoted dislike, until—

… certain esquires spoke to me about an altercation in the hall leading to the lecture room between Andrahar and two esquires, Peloren and Elethil. Given the long history of bad blood between them, and the manner in which Haradrim are accustomed to deal with such feuds, I cannot say this comes as a surprise. Although no complaint was lodged with me about any specific injury done either esquire, Elethil did end upon the floor against the wall under circumstances that have not been explained.

I believe that this warrants further investigation, and perhaps suspension of instructor's duties for Andrahar until the situation has been assessed and clarified.


So that was how the matter would finally be settled, Andrahar thought darkly, as he looked up to meet the expectant regards. I suppose Harthil would be the one to run to—he is ready to believe the worst and ask no questions, after all, he thought, quickly adding it all up. Rather than bring the matter up themselves, Peloren and Elethil would have Harthil do it for them, and lend his weight to the complaint. "Certain esquires," indeed!

"Andrahar? Have you anything to say?" Ornendil prompted him just then.

"I am aware of my shortcomings as an instructor of Haradric, sir," Andrahar replied, seeking to put off the final complaint for a moment at least. "I have sought to obey the instructions Master Harthil laid on me at the beginning of the term, and I have not violated them, but it is true that I have not made much progress with the esquires. If he wishes for another to teach them, I have no objection."

"Noted. And the report of an altercation?"

And this was where things grew difficult and were doomed to remain so, for having gone this far, the matter must play itself out. The masters could not but take such a complaint—brought by one of their colleagues, even if not a knight, on behalf of unnamed esquires, against one whom the masters had trusted with some measure of authority over the esquires—with the utmost seriousness. They would certainly not accept silence on the matter from the accused. But Andrahar equally was bound. And so:

"I am sorry, sir, but I cannot speak to that," Andrahar replied quietly, and meant every word of it, for he did not wish to sit here today. He liked not at all the notion that he might have to bear blame or censure over something his one-time tormentors—or Elethil, strictly speaking—had begun; but he liked even less the thought that he should be foresworn for either of them. For he had said he would say nothing to the masters—said it, and so tacitly sworn it, and though the irony was sickeningly rich, Andrahar would stand by his word. For whatever else might happen, it was what he had, at the end of even the worst of days, and mindful that he had already surrendered too much of himself the other night with Imrahil, he was not going to be foresworn a second time.

Not that Ornendil or the others knew any of this. Ornendil, indeed, was scowling, as he asked, "What do you mean, you cannot speak to that?"

"With all due respect, sir, I mean just that. I cannot speak to it."

"Why not?" Illian asked quietly from his seat.

Andrahar shook his head, spread his hands slightly, helplessly. "Because sir, I cannot. There is not an answer for me to make."

"Are you denying the content of this complaint?" Ornendil demanded.

"No, sir."

"Then you acknowledge it?"

"No, sir. I am not doing either of these things. I mean only what I have said: that I have nothing to say of it—at all, sir," Andrahar maintained, doggedly.

A rather stunned and frustrated silence fell over the room, and Andrahar purposefully kept his gaze fixed upon a point in space, unwilling at just that moment to meet anyone's eyes. At last, though, Ornendil spoke once more.

"You do realize that your reply, while strictly speaking saying nothing, does not weigh in your favor where a complaint of this nature and seriousness is concerned?"

"Yes, sir," Andrahar replied.

"And you realize that, once we finish speaking with all those concerned, if there is enough to warrant an inquiry, you will be ordered to speak?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you understand that if you are so ordered, to refuse to speak is a violation of your oath and duty as a Swan Knight?"

"Yes, sir," Andrahar said, this time lifting his eyes to meet the Armsmaster's, that it might be clear he did indeed understand.

Ornendil held his eyes a moment in silence, then sighed. "Very well. For the time being, the matter will stand. Until further notice, I am relieving you of all instructor's duties, until we can determine what precisely is the status of this complaint. And for all of your sakes, you are commanded to avoid Peloren and Elethil—do not approach them until this matter, whatever it may or may not be, is resolved."

"As you command, sir."

"Dismissed."

Andrahar rose, bowed politely, and then departed, shutting the door quietly behind him. Sergeant Barcalan glanced at him, but did not speak, and Andrahar did not greet him. He simply stood silently a moment, collecting himself and struggling with the conflicted anger and dismay roiling in the pit of his stomach.

And: What now? he wondered. Things would fall out as they would, that was plain, and there was nothing now that he could do to help or hinder them. A part of him wanted to go and find Imrahil and ask him for advice, but he suspected he knew what his oath-brother would say, and he was not really in the mood to deal with Imrahil at his most persuasive, attempting to convince him to go back and tell the masters precisely what had happened.

And that assumes he would speak with me at all. I do owe him an apology, Andrahar reminded himself. But apologies, as well he knew, did not always mend things all at once, and it might be a while before he could impose upon Imrahil for counsel in this current difficulty. Always assuming it outlasts his sense of grievance, that is, he thought and felt a chill go through him, for if he were caught between contradictory promises, neither of which would stand to be broken or to go unfulfilled, would he even have a place in Dol Amroth anymore?

In the end, he compromised: he wrote a note to Imrahil, requesting some time later that evening by the armory, and after making certain he was not observed, slid it under the Heir's door. That done, he made immediately for the stables. There was no question of keeping any company at the moment—he was too unsettled for that. He needed to get out, and though Dol Amroth faced many beaches, not every route led to the sea, thankfully. There were plenty of quiet and blissfully isolated places inland if a man wished to think by himself.

Not that Andrahar anticipated long hours of contemplation—as he saddled his horse, he took his spare sword down from its place on the shelf and strapped it to the saddle. Unsettled as he was, thinking would be impossible without something to focus him and blunt feeling. With a final tug at the cinch, he gave his horse a slap on the neck and coaxed the gelding out of the stall.

"It'll be a good, hard run for us both, lad," he promised, and sighed inwardly. It was going to be a long day…

~ 0 ~


It was late afternoon by the time he returned, feeling weary enough to face what promised to be an uncomfortable evening and a difficult conversation with Imrahil. And it was a good thing, too, for by the time he had seen to his horse, his sword, and washed up, he was just in time to join his fellows for the Standing Silence before sitting down to endure a rather less sacral silence. Conversation was muted, and was certainly not addressed to him, though he could feel the surreptitious glances cast in his direction. Barcalan gave him one long look before attending to his own supper, and Andrahar could tell the sergeant was troubled. But Barcalan did not ask, and Andrahar was unwilling to volunteer anything. Certainly he would not do so in so public a place, much though he regretted the idea that Barcalan might think less of him, for Andrahar had come to respect the sergeant greatly over the course of the term.

Nor was it his table alone that seemed uneasy. The mood in the hall was quite evidently tense—some word of trouble, clearly, had got out. News traveled swiftly among large bodies of men, and the army was absolutely the worst hotbed of gossip to be found, outside of brothels. No doubt, word of some vague report of an incident in the ranks had leaked out. That might explain Peloren's absence at table, and Elethil's, Andrahar noted. He caught Imrahil, from time to time, staring meaningfully at him, but unable to interpret such looks, Andrahar eventually ignored them in favor of finishing his supper. Imrahil would have the chance to make his thoughts plain to him soon enough, after all.

As soon as he could, therefore, Andrahar excused himself from the company and slipped out of the hall, making for the relative sanctuary of the armory. The armory was attached to the salle, or rather, it was the other way around, and in fact had two parts: the section that housed practice arms and the section—usually kept locked—that housed the keep's store of live steel and other weapons. A guardsman kept watch over the single entrance, which was why Andrahar had asked Imrahil to meet him by the armory and not in it. Few would be abroad after sunset, and even fewer would be seeking even the blunted practice arms, but Andrahar did not wish to have the guardsman listening in, though equally, he did not feel a desire to have this conversation in the room he had to live in, for all its appealing privacy.

So he found a spot against the northern wall and settled with his back against it, arms crossed over his chest against the night breezes. He had been there perhaps a quarter of an hour, mayhap a little longer, watching the night sky, when another, silhouetted figure appeared suddenly from around the corner. Andrahar straightened, and the other seemed to as well. Then, almost as one, they spoke:

"Imrahil?" Andrahar asked, expectantly. But:

"Elya?" came the desperately hopeful call.

Stunned silence settled a moment, then: "Peloren?" Andrahar replied, dismayed.

"Varda’s darkened stars!" the other swore. Before Andrahar could react to that, however, the other advanced on him, demanding, "Did you speak to Elethil today?"

"I have not seen Elethil today," he countered, stung, but also taken somewhat aback, by the accusatory urgency in Peloren’s voice, to say nothing of sudden, crowding proximity that made his flesh crawl, seeming as it did to press upon his senses, threatening a most unhappy reaction...

"You are certain of that?" Peloren pressed, staring closely at him.

"I said I have not seen him; what uncertainty is there in that?" Andrahar replied, easing back a pace, seeking a little relief, even as he sought a way out of this conversation and Peloren’s company, mindful of Ornendil’s ban.

"You said you would not speak to the masters, either!" came the rather caustic response.

At that, Andrahar stiffened, offense warring with confusion and sudden suspicion. "I did not—they spoke to me." When Peloren merely snorted, clearly disbelieving, Andrahar continued, insistently, "They spoke to me, about a complaint Master Harthil sent them, on behalf of someone else: ‘certain esquires’ who spoke of our quarrel to him."

"Of course they did!" Peloren retorted, and Andrahar strangled the urge to shake sense into him. Instead:

"Stop being a fool and think a moment, will you?" he snapped. "I do not need an excuse to put either of you in front of the masters after last night—I certainly do not need to feign mercy to you and then cry insolence to them."

"And we are under oath, Andrahar—there can be no trouble from us, or we are cast out. We have not ignored every offense this term and last to poison the well we live from now!" Peloren replied.

"I read Master Harthil’s complaint," Andrahar said quietly. "It said he acted on the word of certain esquires. Are you telling me that those esquires were not you or Elethil?"

"Of course not," Peloren answered. Then: "They did not say anything of Master Harthil to me. They said only that they had had report of some quarrel between you and Elethil and me." He shook his head, distressedly. "I do not know what they said to Elethil—they would not speak to us together, but took us one at a time. I suppose they wished to see if our stories matched."

"What did you tell them?" Andrahar asked.

"What could I tell them? I said the matter was settled and we had no quarrel anymore unless you wished for one."

"And I said I could not speak to the matter at all, even to say whether there was one."

"What?"

Andrahar snorted. "I said I would say nothing to the masters of our quarrel, Peloren, unless you gave me further reason," he replied, firmly. "And I keep my word."

"But if you said nothing, then who…?" Peloren trailed off into a moment’s troubled silence, but he did not linger in it. "It does not matter," he said, dismissing the question. "I have to find Elethil."

"If he does not wish to keep company—" Andrahar began, but Peloren, in his agitation, cut him off.

"This is not about keeping company or not! I have to find him. I have not seen him since this morning, and I do not know—" He stopped himself then, shaking his head. "I have to find him," he insisted, quietly. "I just have to know where he is."

The fear behind those words was palpable, and struck Andrahar forcibly as entirely too familiar, child of Harad’s noble caste that he was. My life is my honor, and my honor my life. That I swear, and this I pray: that should aught shameful take the one, then let me take the other. So men of worth bound themselves to serve in Harad, and made redemption a fearful thing. "How long have you been seeking him?" he asked.

"An hour, maybe. He was upset this morning, but would not speak of it." Peloren shook his head. "I thought he would come back for supper, so I waited and I looked for him when the others had gone in. But I have not found him."

"Have you told Master Ornendil?"

"No. I don’t—that is, if it is nothing, I do not wish to make anything of it. If it is something…" Peloren hesitated, then finished softly, "He’s not been himself since Yule, and I don’t know…"

Oh yes, you do, Andrahar thought, but did not say so. Instead, he urged, "Go to Imrahil. Tell him everything—he will help you look, and help muster others who can be trusted to keep matters quiet until ‘tis plain they must be spoken of."

"No need," said a new voice just then, and Peloren and Andrahar turned swiftly, to where Imrahil was standing, quietly listening in on their conversation. "I came to meet you, Andra, as soon as I could get away." The Heir moved to join them, glancing from Andrahar to Peloren, ere he continued, "If Elethil is missing, he might be anywhere in the keep or the city or even beyond. It will take more than the three of us to find him."

"Aldan, Teilin, Ambor," Peloren said, and shook his head vehemently. "I do not want Faldion and his lads, or Celdir and his lot, to know anything of this. I do not trust them, and neither would Elethil, and if he is distraught…"

"Six people is not very many, especially if Andrahar must stay with me or you," Imrahil warned.

"I know," Peloren replied, but did not give ground. "Aldan, Teilin, and Ambor."

Imrahil sighed. "If you insist, then so be it. Andra, do you know where they live?"

Andrahar shook his head. "No."

"Aldan lives in Roper’s Lane, down in the South Docks," Peloren supplied. "He can take you to the others."

"Roper’s Lane," Andrahar repeated, and glanced at Imrahil, who nodded.

"Get them. Peloren and I shall continue looking through the keep, and we shall meet you at the stables by moonrise. Go!" the Heir ordered.

Andrahar wasted no further words; he simply turned and left at a run, heading directly for the stables. Roper’s Lane was far down in the city, and speed was needed. Moonrise was not so very far away…

The Fire grant that Elethil is as close!

~~~

Books of bad poetry courtesy of Ultimatums 6 and Ultimatums 7.

And to those following this story: I may not update next week. I will be off to watch my brother graduate from college with a double major in Film Production and History, and enter into the vast army of the unemployed or badly exploited workers of this world. Congrats, Bro! Ya done us proud. Now get out there and make us some good movies!


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