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Ash and Water

Peloren came slowly awake the next morning to the sound of waves and gulls. For a time, he simply lay quietly, breathing deeply and trying to decide just how much his head ached. He felt a bit stiff and tired still, and the air outside the covers was cool against flesh that felt tender and hotly swollen. Indeed, he felt himself on the verge of a shiver, but there was something warm and solid at his back, and a weight across his ribs…

Opening his eyes, Peloren glanced down at the arm thrown over him. Someone's breath tickled against the back of his neck. Elethil. A vast relief flooded him, and with a soft sigh, he reached and took his friend's slack hand in his and squeezed gently.

"Mmph." Elethil grunted, shifting slightly. Then he stiffened, and in an abruptly alert tone reflective of many an early and unexpected morning call: "Pel?"

"Aye, I'm awake."

More shifting about, and as Peloren rolled carefully onto his back, he found himself looking up at Elethil, who had pushed himself up on an elbow. For a moment, they stared at each other, then Elethil asked, "How is your head?"

"Sore," Peloren replied. But after an experimental tilt this way and that, he added: "But better than last night."

"Master Kendrion said you were lucky you did not crack your skull," his friend replied.

Peloren sighed. "Aye, we were lucky," he murmured. Then: "Help me up?"

Elethil lent a hand and shoulder, as Peloren carefully sat up, wincing a bit. "Aie, my back! What—?"

"You were cut," Elethil explained, as Peloren felt at the bandages wrapped about his torso. "They said they found you under one of the Haradrim, that Andrahar said he had seen you fall. What happened, Pel?"

What did happen? "I'm not quite sure," Peloren replied, frowning as he tried to recall. "The Corsairs were pressing us hard, and then some of them got around us—they climbed up to the next level on the road and went for the villagers. Andrahar went after them, and left the others to me."

He paused a moment, then continued more slowly. "I was holding one of them off, and then… it was like a brand drawn down my back. I suppose that was someone's sword, and the next thing I knew, something heavy pulled me down." He gave Elethil an anxious look then. "I do not remember anything after that."

"We must have come not long after. We reached the village and were challenged by a number of greybeards with fishing spears, and a couple of swords they weren't even holding rightly," Elethil said. "But they let us pass quickly enough when they realized who we were. Ornendil and the others went straight down, quick as they could, and found Andrahar and a few of the villagers still retreating, holding the Corsairs off." He shook his head. "It was over fairly swiftly after—"

He was interrupted in his tale by a soft knock upon the door. Elethil scrambled off the bed then to answer, cracking the door open to see who it was, before he stood back, bowing politely. "Mistress Falwen," he said, as the herbwoman entered, a trencher with two bowls and steaming mugs set upon it.

"Good morning," she replied, and lifted the tray slightly. "I heard voices, and thought you might be hungry."

"Thank you, mistress," the esquires said gratefully.

"You have been more than kind," Peloren added. "I am sorry to have turned you out of your bed!"

"'Tis no trouble, young lord. The Corsairs would have turned us out of our skins!" Falwen replied, as she set the trencher down upon the stand by the bed. She went to the window and opened the shutters, letting the morning light in. Then she turned and laid a hand under Peloren's chin, gently tilting his head up as she peered at the bruising, felt at his forehead.

"Mmm. No fever. The bruising looks worse than it is, and Dolwen stitched your back up right neatly. You ought to have a fetching scar to show the lasses, I warrant," she declared, and smiled when Peloren blushed. Then she lifted an arm and handed him what had seemed to be a towel, but which turned out to be Peloren's shirt, neatly folded.

"You're a long-limbed lad, or we'd have found a clean shirt for you last night," she said, by way of apology. "As it is, my grand-daughter patched this one, though I fear we could not match the swatch. You shall want someone else to mend it properly, young lord."

"My thanks to you and your family, Mistress," Peloren murmured, but did not move immediately to put it on. Instead, recalling his conversation with Master Ornendil the night before, he asked, hesitantly, "Mistress Falwen?"

"Aye, young lord?"

"How many were there? Of the eleven men who fought with us, how many…?" he trailed off, not quite able to complete the question. The old herbwoman sighed at that, and her cheer faded.

"Alas, we've six to bury this morn, and 'tis too early yet to say whether the other three might not join them, though your Master Kendrion is a wonder," she replied.

"So many as that?" Peloren murmured, feeling a bit numb.

"They kept the Corsairs from us, as they'd hoped to," Falwen replied, stoutly. Then, a little more hesitantly: "I'd not wanted to trouble you before you'd had a bite to eat, but if you wished to stay and stand with us when the time comes, there's none that wouldn't welcome you."

"I should have to ask Master Ornendil if I could," Peloren said, but he lifted his eyes to meet Falwen's gaze. "I should like to, though. Thank you once again, Mistress."

"No, you've our thanks, young lord, you and your commander." It took Peloren a moment to realize that by 'commander,' she meant Andrahar. Andrahar. There was another question for the morning. I wonder how things look to him this morning. And now Elethil is here, too… Peloren sighed and bowed his head a moment, then shook out his shirt and drew it on, wincing just a bit at the pull of stitches. Then he glanced at breakfast.

Falwen smiled, determinedly cheerful once more, and said: "Now you just go ahead and eat that. I've had three boys, and I've never known lads your age to be less than always famished! Good morning to you, young lords."

With that, she made her way out. As soon as the door closed behind her, Peloren breathed a soft sigh, and reached for one of the bowls. But ere he had taken even one bite, he glanced up at Elethil, hovering anxiously nearby, and said, "Come and sit with me. There's that stool in the corner." And when Elethil hesitated, he added: "You might as well eat, Elya. You must be hungry."

"I suppose so," his friend replied, and then obediently fetched the stool, dragging it over to sit down across from Peloren, who pushed a bowl toward him. For his own part, Peloren wolfed his food down, for he had not had supper the night before and his stomach growled softly. But preoccupied as he was by breakfast, he still kept an eye upon the other, who ate swiftly, though without any seeming relish.

As Peloren set his bowl down, he gazed at his friend, who was scraping the last of the porridge from his own bowl. And when Elethil, feeling his stare, looked up at him questioningly, Peloren asked: "How is it with you this morn, Elya?"

Elethil grunted, and ducked his head, staring down at his hands as he played with the spoon. "I am not sure," he replied at length, and shrugged. "I feel a fool, I suppose."

"Well, so that makes two of us," Peloren replied, with a slight smile. But Elethil shook his head.

"'Tis not the same!" he insisted. "You would not have come here had it not been for me. You could have been killed!"

"And we should have been, if it kept the villagers from harm just a little longer," Peloren replied, firmly, though inwardly he shivered a bit. "'Tis not your fault, Elethil. 'Twas the Corsairs that wanted this fight."

"Mayhap, but—"

"Elya." Peloren stopped him. "I'm fine, truly. And someone would have had to stand and mayhap fall—or why else do you think we didn't run? It's all right. We're all right." And he held the other's gaze until, at last, Elethil nodded slowly… and looked away. Peloren chewed gently at the tip of his tongue, knowing on the one hand that he had not answered his friend, not truly, and on the other, acutely, painfully conscious of the fact that he had no answer.

But he is still here. That is not nothing! So he told himself, and wished he could silence that voice that insisted his friend still was unwell, desperately so, and that there had to be something to do about it, some cure to be had, if only he could find it…

At length, however, lacking any curative insights, Peloren sighed inwardly and rose, and Elethil hastened to rise with him.

"I want to find Master Ornendil," Peloren said. "I know he doesn't owe me aught, but it cannot hurt to ask if I could stay for a time."

"I'll come with you," Elethil said. Peloren gave him a long look, then added:

"And I want to find Andrahar."

Elethil was still for a moment, but then: "I'll come with you."

~ 0 ~

They did not find Ornendil, however: he had gone with Commander Albarion to talk over matters with the captain of the Telmar. Master Théorwyn had been left in command, and he gave Peloren an appraising look. "How do you feel this morning?" he asked.

"Well enough, sir," Peloren replied. "A bit of a headache."

"Not terribly surprising," the Horsemaster replied, with a faint smile. "Was there something you wanted, Peloren? Why do you seek the Armsmaster?"

"Mistress Falwen told me they would be burying their dead today," Peloren answered. "I do not know if I am expected back at Dol Amroth, but I wondered whether I could stay until they were done, sir."

"You know you are under Master Kendrion's jurisdiction?"

"I am?"

"Aye. You and Andrahar, both. And I believe Kendrion plans to remain for a time, to give the three village lads hurt in the battle their best chance. Mistress Falwen knows her herbs, but Master Kendrion knows surgery," Théorwyn replied. "I expect there shall be no trouble. Andrahar has already asked to remain for a time in any case, and neither of you would be permitted back on the lists until the healers deemed you fit for it. Although you, Elethil, are expected to return with the rest of the company."

"Yes, sir," Elethil said quietly. The Horsemaster seemed to weigh that response, and its tone, his eyes resting on the rather subdued esquire a long moment ere he said briskly:

"Well, then. Is there aught else?" And when both esquires shook their heads, he gave them a nod and gestured broadly to the village. "Then you are on your own recognizance for the time being, barring orders from Master Kendrion or Master Ornendil."

"Thank you, sir," Peloren replied. But then he hesitated a moment. "Sir?"


"You said Andrahar had asked to stay. Do you know where he is, sir?"

Théorwyn raised a brow, and gave Peloren a searching look, then glanced at Elethil. But then: "Aye. He is with the Haradrim." And he gestured then towards the cliff. "On the beach."

"The beach?" Elethil murmured, confused, as he and Peloren left the Horsemaster's company and made for the cliff and the road. Peloren shrugged, mystified.

"I do not know," he replied.

~ 0 ~

But they soon found out. There was blood upon the trail this morn, forming little clots of sand or splashed up upon the cliff wall. Peloren found himself gritting his teeth as he walked, and he kept his eyes on the cove below. By the light of day, all lay open to view. The gulls were out in force, launching from crannies in the cliffside, hovering on the morning air, and they passed glimmering over sands. There, a number of blue-clad figures moved, passing back and forth along the beach, bringing driftwood whither a number of still forms lay all in a row. And standing over them was a smaller, darker figure than the others, his blue-black hair unbound for once and streaming in the breeze.

Andrahar did not notice them as they stepped off the path and onto the sand. He was crouched with his back to them at the head of one of his fallen countrymen, and it seemed to Peloren that he spoke softly under his breath, one hand laid over the eyes of the dead man. From man to man he passed, uncovering faces as he went, and upon each brow left a dark mark. Elethil and Peloren exchanged a quick, uncertain look, and by unspoken agreement, remained where they stood, unwilling to interrupt whatever ritual this was, which did not appear to be the same as they had been led to expect from any of Master Harthil's lectures, or even Andrahar's.

At length, the Swan Knight came to the end of the row—twenty-eight men, all told, victims of falls or stones or blades, and of the latter, not all of them Gondorian. We should have been among them, Peloren could not but think once more, and felt a little dizzy considering it. But Elethil was there with a hand under his elbow, steadying him, and he breathed in deeply, and the dizziness receded.

Andrahar rose then, unfolding like a cat. As he straightened, Peloren noted the little bowl he left upon the sand, with some mixture in it that looked like ash, almost, and something else… The Southron stood for a moment, staring down at the dead, and then he glanced at his right hand, the one he had used to draw the mark upon the brows of the others. A moment he seemed to hesitate over that strange chrism, turning a little from the Haradrim. It was at that point he caught sight of Peloren and Elethil standing by, watching. Dark eyes widened slightly, and then a certain wariness settled upon him—wariness, or was it rather a certain self-consciousness Peloren was not accustomed to see in the other?

Peloren cleared his throat a bit, then offered, a little awkwardly, "Good morrow."

"Good morning," Andrahar replied. His left arm was bound in a sling this morn, and it appeared that someone had found him a clean set of clothes at least, though even so, the homespun shirtsleeves fell just a bit high past the wrists. Peloren noted a bruise to his left cheek that he did not recall from the night before, and frowned a little.

"What happened?" he asked, raising a hand to brush along his own face by way of illustration.

"Weak guard on the left," Andrahar replied laconically, as his eyes flicked up and down Peloren's person, then cut to Elethil swiftly, ere he returned his gaze to Peloren. "What brings you?"

"I thought that we should talk. But if we should wait…" Peloren gestured to the Haradrim. Something flickered in those dark eyes, and that sense of self-conscious closing-off intensified as Andrahar lowered his gaze once more.

"No. The thing is done; they wait but for the fire," he replied, and rather abruptly turned and made for the shoreline, though he did call over his shoulder: "Come if you like."

Peloren bit his lip, but he reached and touched Elethil's arm, and the two of them followed silently after the young knight.

Andrahar had never loved the sea, and he did not venture out into the shallows, even, only as far as the tide lapping the shore. There he sank down on his haunches and dipped his hand into the water, splashing a bit as he washed the sticky-seeming substance from his fingers. When he had done, though, he did not rise, but simply stared out at the ocean, running a wet hand through his hair. Peloren, staring at him, at his back and the set of his shoulders, felt a slight shiver go through him, and suddenly he was glad he could not see the other's face.

"Here am I, again, yet again—ahaya!" Andrahar paused, then asked: "How did we come here, precisely?"

Peloren blinked, momentarily thrown off by the quick shifts between tongues. And in truth, he was not certain how to answer, uncertain what to make of the question, to say nothing of the rest that left him wondering what preoccupied his erstwhile classmate. Other than everything, I suppose, he amended, feeling a familiar flutter of shame. At length, though, he replied, "I don't know that I've more of an answer than I had last night."

Andrahar sighed, and now he did rise, turning to them as he shook his head. "No," he corrected. "I mean: how did we come here? I have wondered about it since last night. What happened in Dol Amroth that sent everything sliding into the sea—this complaint that's arisen. Do you know?"

At that, Elethil looked to Peloren anxiously, and shook his head minutely. Peloren grunted. "It's as I said—'twas not we who made it, and if it was not you…" He trailed off and shrugged. "Who would complain on our behalf in any case?" he asked, feeling at a loss.

"It would be simpler if that were the question," Andrahar replied, eyes narrowing. "What I read was too carefully construed. Master Harthil knows his word-craft, yet I think me it was given to him in so vague a form. 'Tis more profitable thus."

"Profitable?" Peloren frowned. "You think this was meant to make trouble?"

"There is no lack of it in Dol Amroth where you two or I are concerned," Andrahar pointed out. Which was all too true, Peloren thought, even as Elethil spoke up unexpectedly.

"But if that is so," he asked quietly, "who was the target? You? Or we?"

Andrahar made no immediate reply to that, nor did Peloren, and for a time, all three stood in silence, combing back through memory, seeking an answer. At length, Andrahar said, "'Tis impossible to say, for as many as would see you gone, there are no doubt as many as would see me leave, too. Nor need it be the case that this was aimed at only one or the other of us; there must surely be many who would gladly be rid of the lot of us. Always assuming there was malice in this."

"I thought you said this complaint seemed to you too profitably vague," Peloren said.

"Everything has a seeming," Andrahar said and gave a one-shouldered shrug; "It need not be true, though."

"But who would have known in any case?" Elethil frowned, brows knitting in puzzlement. "That I cannot understand. There was no one in the hall to see us, and we only spoke with Imri when he came calling."

"And Imri would not have taken it further," Peloren said, for Imrahil was nothing if not faithful to his oaths.

"Nay, 'twas not Imrahil," Andrahar said, with certainty. "But thinking on it, there was one other in the hall: Uilovar. I met him as he left Master Harthil."

"Uilovar? He's not aligned with anyone, I thought," Peloren said, searching his memory.

"He has friends who go with Faldion," Elethil pointed out.

"Aye, but he also has friends who are friends with Torlas," Peloren countered, and shook his head. "If he saw, and spoke with someone about what he saw, it might have gone anywhere."

"But he cannot have seen much," Andrahar mused. "That would account for the vagueness. If the tale is out among the other esquires, no doubt there are ten different versions of the night before last already!" At that, all three of them grimaced, disliking the thought of returning to Dol Amroth to face such gossip. Especially atop all the rest! Peloren thought unhappily. Then:

"You think he brought the complaint, then?"

"He might have, though there is still the matter of there being more than one esquire reporting to Master Harthil, unless that is a shield," Andrahar replied. "There is no knowing, unless we ask Uilovar."

"Or Master Harthil," Peloren said, and gave Andrahar a queer look. "He asked questions about you during the examination, did you know that?"

Andrahar grunted, eyes narrowing. But in the end, he said only: "He is not one to ask after, Master Harthil. Leave him to the masters."

"The masters said they would call upon us again," Elethil said softly. "That we would have to answer then in full."

"You've already spoken to them, Elethil," Peloren said, surprised by the new fearfulness in his friend's voice.

"No, I told them about last term, and about where I had been and why," Elethil replied, eyes downcast now. "We had not come so far as the complaint when Imrahil arrived."

Peloren understood then, and he felt his heart sink. I thought he had said all, when Master Ornendil reassured me. But if this whole affair still stands… If Elethil still had not said anything of what precisely had provoked the encounter in the hall, and if Andrahar, too, had kept silent, then reckoning remained. And we swore we would be courteous to all… or we would leave. But if Elethil were cast out, where then would he go…?

"Give me leave to speak with Master Ornendil about this." Peloren and Elethil looked up in startlement at Andrahar, who sighed at their twin uncomprehending looks. "It is as I told you last night, Peloren: I may not speak, for I said I would not. Give me leave to do so, and I will."

The two esquires exchanged still puzzled looks, ere Peloren shrugged slightly. "For my part, you have my leave," he said, and Elethil nodded, after only a brief hesitation. "But what is there to say?"

"Everything, apparently," came the somewhat dry response. But then more seriously: "We need not be friends to be allies in this. This inquest helps no one if it goes before others for judgment of wrong. There is enough wrong to spread about, there should be no need to use the three of us to measure it."

Peloren wordlessly laid a hand upon Elethil's back, and he caught the other's eyes as his friend looked at him. It should have to come out in any case, he thought. At least there would be no need to fret over what Andrahar might say. Elethil, perhaps, divined his thought, for he lowered his eyes and sighed softly, but he also nodded.

"We would always be bound to answer truthfully," Peloren said aloud, as much to remind himself as Elethil, and then looked to Andrahar. "If you will say it has gone far enough, then we shall hope the masters shall listen."

So agreed, the three of them made their way back from the shoreline, and Andrahar at least made straight for the knot of Swan Knights who had apparently finished with the task of piling driftwood, hatcheted planks, and dried seaweed about and beneath the dead. Peloren and Elethil, after a momentary hesitation, trailed after him.

Heads rose as the three of them approached, and then one of the knights stepped forward. Sergeant Barcalan gave Andrahar a nod, and said, "Is there aught else that we should do, Andrahar?"

Andrahar shook his head. "No, Sergeant," he replied. "Just keep the fire burning."

"No fear but that we shall. 'Tis as well we ride for Dol Amroth by day, or 't'would be a long, dark journey home with all the torch oil we've used here," Barcalan replied, and signed to one of the men standing by with a torch in hand. "Ilembor."

Ilembor stepped forward then, and lowered the brand to the kindling laid all about and beneath the Haradrim, walking all along the row of bodies, flames blossoming in his wake. At the end, he let fall the torch and stood back—indeed, everyone stood back, for Barcalan had spoken truly. Torch oil caught swiftly, the fire leaping up with a roar. Peloren closed his eyes a moment against the heat and the sting of smoke, then reopened them and determinedly made himself watch as the funerary flames did their work, devouring his foes one by one.

The Haradrim, as the esquires had learned, held that fire purified, that it sent Men back to the element in which they began. And perhaps there was something to that—watching the flames mount and lick at the morning air, it was as if they caught in Peloren's heart and mind, too, burning away the terror of last night, and spreading to consume the fear that had possessed him too many long days and months, reducing the past to ashes.

It will pass, all this trouble, he thought suddenly, and for the first time believed it. It will pass, and we shall still be here, knights of Dol Amroth. He reached and laid a hand upon Elethil's shoulder, gripping firmly, kneading a bit, and he felt Elethil lay a hand over his.

A little beyond them both, Andrahar stood with his head bowed, and Peloren wondered at his silence. 'Tis said Haradrim sing for their dead. Or is it only for their own fellow bondsmen? He could not recall. But when at length the other raised his head, Peloren saw Andrahar's lips moving without sound, though his eyes were closed. Nor did he open them until he had finished whatever song or prayer he mouthed, nor did he move, as in twos and threes, those who had helped to prepare the bodies and the fire made their salutes and departed.

At length, only six of them remained: Peloren, Elethil, and Andrahar, along with the pair of knights assigned to watch the pyres and keep them burning, and Sergeant Barcalan. And Barcalan, after a little while, came to stand with them, and he gently touched Elethil's arm, and Peloren's. Come, his eyes beckoned, when the two esquires glanced at him, and he nodded discreetly towards Andrahar. Come away and leave him be.

Perhaps that was a wise idea, for though Peloren did not think Andrahar was one to shed many tears over the deaths of his enemies, his mood was certainly troubled and strange this morning. He made a somewhat stiff bow, as courtesy required even for the enemy dead, and then began to follow Barcalan carefully around towards the road. But as he cast a habitual glance back over his shoulder, seeking Elethil behind him, he realized his friend remained standing by the pyre, by Andrahar. Peloren paused, uncertain whether he ought to go back or beckon to him before Barcalan noticed—sergeants were not known for their willingness to give orders twice.

But before he could say a word, Elethil turned toward Andrahar and stood there, waiting, until presently Andrahar glanced up at him. Grey eyes met black ones, held a moment, and then Elethil spoke. "I cannot unsay what I've said or thought. And we are not friends. Or peers. But I know you saved Peloren last night, and…" Elethil paused, as his voice tightened. Yet he drew himself up a bit, and finished, in a sincere rush: "Thank you for his life, sir."

A moment longer Elethil remained, then bowed his head and moved to follow Peloren and Barcalan. He had only just reached Peloren, however, when Andrahar called after him: "Elethil." And when Elethil turned back, the other said: "'Tis not friends or peers that matter; Swan Knights keep each other."

With that, he lowered his gaze once more to the fire, and Peloren gave his friend a nudge. Elethil shook himself a bit at that, and darted a glance at Peloren, ere looking back swiftly at Andrahar once more, before finally he turned away. And Peloren laid an arm about his shoulders as they went, and leaning in close, murmured, "He's right, you know."

Elethil sighed and nodded. "I know," he said softly.

"Do you?" Peloren asked. Elethil shot him an irritated look at that, but Peloren did not turn away, only held his gaze until something like understanding flickered in the other's eyes. Peloren smiled slightly, and pressed his friend close and hard a moment ere releasing him.

"We'll keep each other, Elya," he murmured, and meant it as a promise. "We'll see this thing through as far as it must go."

Elethil bowed his head and rubbed a bit at his eyes. "I just want to have done with it all, Pel!" he said tiredly.

"So do I. And soon enough," he vowed, "we shall."

But they had the day still to get through, and yet another funeral. It was some hours later, close to noon, that the villagers gathered to lay their lost ones to rest a little ways down the road. Nor they alone: with them came nearly a full company of Swan Knights, walking their steeds behind in silent escort as they followed the villagers, who bore their dead high upon biers and sang as they processed down to the burial grounds.

It was at least a ceremony Peloren knew from the villages around Hathwyn—simple rites, grown up between sea and shore and faithful to both as the dead were laid carefully into the earth and a little water sprinkled over each. Master Dorhan stood forward, then, to speak the words of the wayfaring over those lost.

"The world is bent, and the ways are broken that lead to Valinor—all save one, that each of us must travel one day, ere we leave this world for what lies Beyond," he recited. "Today we send forth our wayfarers on their journey, in the hope that one day, they shall welcome us home. Bless their coming and their going: Turos, Porion, Balan, Ciryar, Anhir, and Hadron. For your lives among us, and your lives laid down for us, and to your loved ones who have let you go, we are grateful."

It was custom afterwards to speak to the family of the slain if one knew them, and both Peloren and Andrahar dutifully stood by, waiting for a moment in which to give their condolences. But it was not so simple a thing as that, for it seemed folk were eager to speak with them as well. Indeed, the two of them soon found themselves the center of a small ring of villagers, who passed from them to the families or the other way around, with some variation on "Thank you" to say. Though perhaps not unexpected, it felt rather awkward, given the circumstances, and the two young men did their best to answer graciously while discreetly attempting to withdraw to do their duty by the bereaved.

In the end, though, it did not matter: the families of their thrown-together little squad ended up coming to them. Peloren had struggled through the whole ceremony to think of something suitable to say of men he had known but a few dark hours—he could say nothing of their lives, and wished he had not to speak of their deaths, but what else was there to speak of? He thought Andrahar managed a little better: having been conscious to witness their passing, he could at least say something more of bravery in battle. But he seemed quite as subdued, often, as Peloren, particularly in the face of familial well-wishes.

"The One bless you both, my lords," said Turos's mother, standing on tiptoe to lay a hand first upon Peloren's head, and then Andrahar's. Peloren watched Andrahar's eyes widen a bit, but he endured the unexpected contact without otherwise flinching from it. But both of them were glad when at last Master Ornendil moved forward to offer his condolences, then drew them aside for a last word.

"You will report to Master Kendrion and ride home with him—I expect you to follow his orders as my own until you return to Dol Amroth. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," they both replied.

"Very good. Now, when you return, there will be many questions put to you," the Armsmaster warned, giving each of them a long look. "Think well therefore on what you will say. For make no mistake, gentlemen: we cannot continue as we are. We may not do so. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"I shall hope so. And in the mean time, I wish you well and commend you to Kendrion's care. Until Dol Amroth." And with that, the Armsmaster left them, returning to his horse, and he signaled the company to mount up. As one, they did so, and then two by two, they followed Ornendil south, spurring their horses to a trot and then a canter as they reached the road. Elethil, who was near the end of the line, waved to them, a little forlornly, and Peloren raised a hand in return. He watched as the line of horsemen strung out upon the road, and swifter than one might expect, they were gone.

Peloren and Andrahar followed the villagers back to their homes, but as they went, Peloren found himself slowing, falling further behind. Beside him, Andrahar gave him a queer look, though he, too, slowed, and eventually asked: "Are you well?"

"Fine. 'Tis just that my head hurts. It didn't, earlier, not really, but all of a sudden…" Peloren winced, squinting against the bright sunlight. "Aiya!"

He felt a hand land on his arm, and then Andrahar was saying, "Master Kendrion said you had a concussion."

"Aye, well, I felt fine this morning, more or less," he said and sighed. "I think mayhap I should sit down for awhile."

"Should I fetch the master healer?"

"No. No, I'll be fine. I'll just… find some place to lie down."

In the end, Andrahar walked him over to where the Swan Knights had camped the night before, and where some bedrolls and their owners remained, and one of them, Sildar, upon recognizing the pair of them, took one look at Peloren's face, and said, "Aye, you've about had it, I think. Here, lad, rest here a minute."

"My thanks, sir," Peloren murmured, and let the other guide him over to a set of blankets. And as Peloren sank down upon them, he heard Sildar saying:

"What happened, Andrahar? Is he all right?"

"I think so. He says he is."

"I'm fine," Peloren grunted, squeezing his eyes shut. "Don't need a healer. Just need a little time."

"You're sure?" Shadows fell upon him as both Sildar and Andrahar leaned over him.

"Aye. Certain." Just leave me be! Peloren pressed a hand over his eyes. The sudden resurgence of the headache aside, all the tumult of feeling that had marked the morning left him feeling quite thoroughly drained of a sudden.

Happily, it seemed that his knighted brethren were willing to accept his assurances, for after a moment, the others withdrew, and with a sigh of relief, Peloren curled up and fell almost immediately asleep.

~ 0 ~

The sun was setting when Peloren woke once more, this time to a hand on his shoulder, and a voice gently calling to him. "Peloren," Master Kendrion said, and gave him a slight shake. "Wake up, lad."

Yawning, Peloren blinked his eyes open and then pushed himself up on one arm. The silver-haired healer gave him a smile and peered closely at him, before pronouncing: "Well, you seem clear-eyed enough. How do you feel?"

"Fine, sir. A little tired of the question, actually," he replied honestly, and Kendrion chuckled, not unkindly.

"I fear you shall have time yet to grow still more weary of it," he said dryly. Then: "Come and have something to eat, and you can return to a well-earned rest."

With a grunt, Peloren climbed to his feet and followed the master healer over to a cluster of Swan Knights ranged about a campfire. They greeted him, and Kendrion, and a few made space for them, while others passed about supper, which consisted of a fish stew, a hunk of bread, and the ubiquitous cup of tea for Peloren.

"No ale for you, lad, 'til Master Kendrion assures us it won't addle your brains further," Sildar jested, as he deftly intercepted the ale-skin being passed about. Peloren wrinkled his nose, but did not argue, instead glancing round the circle. Some must be on patrol, he thought, and then frowned for the one absence he would not have expected.

"Where is Andrahar?" he asked after a moment, for of a certainty, Master Kendrion would not allow him a place on any guard rotation, wounded as he was. But it was not Kendrion who answered.

"Over there," Sildar replied, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. Peloren leaned a bit to the side and spied a figure curled up beneath a couple of blankets, and with his back safely to a pile of saddlebags.

"Is he all right?"

"He, like you, is following the usual course of youthful knightly recovery," Kendrion informed him then. And when Peloren gave him a puzzled look, he explained: "Denial of injury, insistence upon overdoing it, and collapse." So he said, and smiled, though it did not quite undo the gently chiding tone. "No fear, Peloren, he'll be well. 'Tis simply that he lost a good deal of blood and was up all night, I've no doubt. Next time, someone will stand over him until he has swallowed whatever potion he is given–I found the sleeping draught untouched on the stand this morning."

A few of the Swan Knights chuckled at that. "He's not one to rest overmuch," one of them, Cirendur, said wryly.

Kendrion sighed and shook his head. "No, he is not," he replied, and something about his tone caught Peloren's ear: a certain reminiscent note that puzzled the esquire. However, it was certainly nothing to inquire about at the moment, particularly when Kendrion's next words were: "So far, all of my patients remain with us, though 'tis still touch and go for one of them. If he lasts the night, I am inclined to say I can leave him in the care of Mistress Falwen and the other village herbalists, though I should like to remain some part of tomorrow as well."

"The sergeant said we should render you all assistance, Master Kendrion," Sildar said then. "Whenever you are ready, there will be an escort for you, and to take these two—" and here, the Swan Knight nodded at Peloren and over his shoulder at Andrahar "—home."

At that, a certain silence fell, and Peloren conscientiously attended to his supper, aware, though, of the sense of tension that had settled. For: Home, he thought, and wondered what lay in store. Master Ornendil had said that there would be questions waiting, questions that must now be answered in full. And the Prince—he shall be waiting, too, Peloren thought, feeling his stomach clench a bit, for despite his newfound convictions of the morn, still, he did not look forward to that interview. What shall he have to say of us? Of Elethil?

But there was no way around it And at least it shall finally be over—all of this affair—shan't it? he reminded himself. That is what is supposed to happen, after all!

"'Twill be good to go home," he said in a low voice, and wavered only momentarily as he glanced up to meet the intent gazes that had fallen upon him. Then he lifted his chin and affirmed, a little more strongly, "We all want to come home."

'Twas Master Kendrion who broke the silence. Laying a fatherly hand upon Peloren's back, he nodded, and said, "Well said, lad. Indeed, we do!"

~ 0 ~

The next day dawned to the discovery that all of Master Kendrion's patients breathed still, much to everyone's relief. And it seemed they suffered no worse than they had, for by mid-afternoon, the master healer pronounced himself satisfied that the worst of the danger was over, though he left Mistress Falwen with several potions he had brought along and a number of strict instructions by which to keep her patients..

That task done, and grateful thanks received, it was time to leave. "Come back when the weather turns," Mistress Falwen told Peloren, and then looked meaningfully beyond him at Andrahar.

"We shall, Mistress," Peloren assured her, ere he mounted one of the spare horses that had been brought along.

"Safe journey," Barcalan wished them, as Kendrion collected his escort from the sergeant.

"A peaceful watch to you, sergeant," the healer replied. Then, glancing at Andrahar and Peloren: "Come!" Obediently, they fell in behind him, the rest of the little three-man escort arranging themselves to either side, with one rider out front. Not that there was likely any danger, but then again, none of them had expected any two nights ago, either.

Their pace on the return journey was far more leisurely than it had been on the way out, and for a wonder, it was another sunny, clear day in March, though cool still with winter. It was an easy ride, too, for the land fell away to the south, as the cliffs slowly sank down to meet the shore. Perversely, Peloren found himself wishing it were more strenuous, for that at least might have claimed his attention, which seemed bent on returning to worry about Elethil.

"You have quite the long face, lad," Master Kendrion said at one point. When Peloren looked at him, he asked, "Which is it? Elethil or Prince Adrahil's judgment?"

"Both," Peloren admitted. But then: "I just want to know…" He trailed off, caught among the many things he wished to know: That Elethil will stay with us. That he'll have a place to go. That it won't be Caldor. That he's safe. Especially that Elethil was safe. "I want to know what will happen to him, to Elya," he finished after a moment.

"Elethil will be well taken care of, never fear," Kendrion replied, kindly. "You will see."

But Peloren did not answer. He was staring fixedly ahead down the road. For there, another hill rose steadily up—the promontory atop which stood Dol Amroth's watchtowers and keep, and all the rest of the city flowing down westward, then curving about south or north to where the great harbor lay.

As evening drew on, and the breeze picked up, and the horizon began to darken with clouds, they reached the gates. Passing unchallenged within, they began to climb once more up from the outer wall towards the inner ramparts. Peloren felt his anxiety rise, as well as an impatience to see Elethil once more, but he held determinedly to their pace. A sideways glance at Andrahar showed no discernible sign of distress, though for a wonder, given Andrahar's uncanny ability to know when he was being watched, he did not respond to Peloren's surreptitious look.

Eventually, they reached the gate to the inner keep, and there again, they were not challenged. Rather, the guards, recognizing the knights and Master Kendrion, greeted them, and the master healer gave a smiling, polite nod in response. The stables were nigh, and everyone made haste to settle his mount. Peloren especially was quick, anxious to go in search of Elethil, and so he took the barest time necessary to see to his horse, and to return Aldan's sword to its place with the rest of his gear, then hurried off toward the doors.

However, he had not gone far down the row of stalls when he was diverted from his purpose by an imperious, impatient neighing. "Lightfall!" Peloren hastened to him.

The gelding tossed his head, stamping a bit, and as soon as Peloren reached the stall, Lightfall stuck his head over the door and sniffed, nostrils flaring, as he nosed his rider, seeming to check for damage.

"I'm back, lad," Peloren murmured, stroking the great arched neck reassuringly, and got a snort, as if of disbelief, for an answer. "I'm back. All is well—well enough, at least. I hope you showed Imrahil your paces!" Another snort, and Peloren sighed, closing his eyes.

"Peloren?" came a slightly amused voice, and Peloren quickly turned to see Master Kendrion standing there, watching, Andrahar and one of the others of their escort at his side.

"I'll come back tomorrow and give you a proper brush," the esquire promised his mount quickly, and gave Lightfall's neck a good slap before moving to join the others. "What happens now?" he asked the healer.

"Now," Kendrion said, "you wait to hear from Master Ornendil. He will have reported to the Prince already, so I do not think you shall have to wait long. In any case, I sent Calambar on ahead to inform them of our arrival."

And in fact, when they reached the keep, the guards there greeted them politely, and the watch commander informed them, "The Prince left instruction: he asks that you go immediately to his study and wait there until he arrives, if he is not already within."

"Thank you," Andrahar said, glancing quickly at Peloren, who nodded as well.

And so in they went, and down the halls, then up the stairs until they reached the prince's study, Peloren feeling acutely conscious of his rather windblown appearance and the over-large shirt and trousers he had borrowed from one of the Swan Knights that morning. All of which was no doubt the least of his concerns, and so he worried at it 'til they arrived at the door of Adrahil's study. The guard there opened the door for them, then stood aside, and Peloren entered, holding his breath.

Already Master Théorwyn and Captain Valandil were there, standing together and talking quietly. There was no sign of Prince Adrahil yet. There were, however, several chairs drawn up in a circle, and making a quick count of expected bodies, Peloren came up with one less than the number of chairs, and frowned. But he had not long to wonder.

"Go ahead, Peloren," Kendrion prompted, and gave him a gently nudge forward. Then, somewhat to Peloren's surprise, the healer shut the door behind them all, and then urged his two wards, "Have a seat. I expect we await only the Armsmaster and Master Illian."

Then is the Prince here? Peloren wondered, and looked towards the closed door that led to the inner study. Might he be there now? And what was he doing? All such questions, however, would receive their answer in due time, and so, with an effort, he schooled himself to patience, and obediently followed Andrahar over to claim a chair. It was vaguely amusing to watch the Southron hesitate over his, one hand laid over the back, clearly itching to turn it about, as was his usual way with chairs. However, it was a brief moment only, and then he settled into it, though he seemed somewhat ill at ease, even as Peloren felt.

Kendrion, meanwhile, had joined Théorwyn and Valandil, but they had only just greeted him when all eyes were drawn away once more by new arrivals. For the door opened at just that moment to admit Masters Illian and Ornendil.

"Our apologies for the delay," Master Ornendil said. "Calambar found us not long ago."

"'Tis no trouble," Valandil assured him. "Kendrion has only just brought Peloren and Andrahar."

At that, the Armsmaster glanced over at them, and he made the two of them a nod. Peloren and Andrahar inclined their heads politely, even as Valandil excused himself to go and knock upon the inner door.

After a few moments, the door opened, and there stood Adrahil… and with him a rather pensive Elethil. Peloren felt his spine stiffen and his heart beat a little more quickly, as his gaze fixed anxiously upon his friend. Adrahil murmured something to Elethil, who nodded, and then made his way over to join Peloren and Andrahar, sliding into the seat next to Peloren.

"Pel," he murmured.

"Elya," Peloren replied. "What did the Prince want?"

Elethil shook his head, however. "Later," he said shortly, which did little to reassure Peloren, who pressed:

"Are you well?"

Elethil gave him a sideways look. "There is always a healer hovering about. And Imrahil and Aldan and the others have been trying to distract me since yesterday," he said, by way of roundabout answer.

"Oh." Peloren bit his lip. Beside him, he thought he heard Andrahar give a soft snort, but other things claimed his attention then.

"Gentlemen," Adrahil was saying, and as all turned towards him, those seated rose to make their bows.

"My lord prince," Peloren said, and heard deferential murmurings all around the room.

Adrahil inclined his head politely. "Thank you for coming," he said, and then gestured to the chairs. "Please be seated, so that we may begin."

There was a brief silence, as everyone made haste to take his place, Kendrion claiming the seat on Elethil's other side, so that the masters, Captain Valandil, and the Prince ended seemingly ranged over against the younger men. No one sat, however, until Adrahil had done so, and then with a sighing rustle of tunics and tabards, the rest of them followed suit. When all had settled, Adrahil leaned back in his chair and eyed Peloren, Elethil, and Andrahar a long moment.

"'Tis strange to me," the prince said at length, as he subjected each pair of eyes in turn to that searching regard, "that it seems I only ever see the three of you together of late when there is trouble afoot. Not even a rise in the ranks seems to overcome this tendency." This, as he held Andrahar's gaze. Andrahar, after but a moment, bowed his head.

"Moreover," he continued, tone growing more severe, "it seems that the lesson of last time was not learned—we discovered then a grievous willingness to take matters into one's own hands. When such happens, it not only hampers us in our efforts to maintain a just peace in our ranks, but it bespeaks a sad lack of trust in those who are your brothers, especially of those of your brothers whose task it is to ensure your fraternity.

"That cannot be permitted to continue," Adrahil said firmly. "Is this understood?"

"Yes, my lord prince," Peloren said, and heard Elethil and Andrahar saying likewise. The prince gave them all another long look before he nodded sharply.

"We shall hold you to that—and the others as well, rest assured," Adrahil said, garnering some uncertain looks from the three young men. "So, let us have this tale out in the open at last."

At that, Peloren glanced first and worriedly at Elethil, then uncertainly at Andrahar, who looked back at both of them a moment ere decision flickered in those dark eyes. He turned back to the prince, and rose to bow once more.

"My lord prince," he said, "I could tell you what passed on Friday evening, and I should, for I never answered the questions put to me about it. But there are many other tales that bring us to this point, and knowing them now—for we have talked, Peloren, Elethil, and I—I cannot say that I know now who was more wronged that night."

Adrahil's eyebrow arched. "Do continue," he invited. And then he gestured swiftly, adding, "Sit down, Andrahar, this is not a trial."

"Thank you, my lord prince," Andrahar replied, and resumed his seat, and after only a moment's silence, began to speak. For the next while, Peloren sat with his eyes downcast, listening to Andrahar's voice—cool, flat, seemingly without emotion, his 'report' voice, Imrahil had called it once—dispassionately relate the incidents of Friday night, including the precise content of the insult and his own response, in full, promise included.

"That is why," he explained, "I would not speak the next morning. 'Twas done with for me—Elethil had owned his words already, and we had an agreement that it should not go further. And in truth, the whole evening was hardly well done on either side—what Elethil said was true enough on one count, and for the rest, 'tis nothing I have not heard before, and less creative than many."

At that, there was a slight, uncomfortable rustling in the seats across the way; Peloren, who had sat inwardly cringing through Andrahar's recounting, glanced up to see Ornendil grimace, and Théorwyn scowl, while Illian was rubbing at the furrow in his brow in a pained fashion. Valandil's expression was taut, and the prince, although his expression seemed unchanged—not for naught was Adrahil reputed one of Gondor's best negotiators—but Peloren sensed that he, too, was unhappy with this pronouncement. He darted a quick look at Andrahar, who sat straight in his chair, his chin raised ever so slightly, and felt a certain admiration for the challenge in those words and their straight-forward delivery. Nothing I have not heard before, after all, was an indictment of the notion that anything deserving of attention had occurred on Friday, for it had been nothing out of the ordinary.

Indeed, Adrahil replied, after a moment, "Your point is well taken, Andrahar, thank you. Elethil, have you anything to say—whether to contest or confirm or to add anything?"

Elethil stiffened slightly, but then he stood slowly, despite Adrahil's assurance that this was no trial. "Yes, my lord, I do have something to say." He paused, and drew a breath, then turned, surprisingly, to Andrahar, who cocked his head, curious if a bit wary. Elethil seemed to shrink into himself a bit, but forged ahead determinedly.

"When we returned this Lithe past, Peloren and I took an oath that we should be courteous to all our brothers, esquires and knights—both. We were not to do or say anything that would not be meet," he said tautly, and Peloren, staring up at him, saw him swallow hard and then Elethil bowed his head. "I broke that oath two nights ago. In fact, I've broken it more often than that, but two nights ago, I spoke very poorly and rudely of Andrahar… and he happened to hear it. I do not know everything that is being said about this, or how exactly it got out to others, but that is the truth. And I am sorry, for they were unworthy thoughts, and but the latest in a long line of offense."

Which confession constituted perhaps the longest speech Peloren had ever heard his friend give before so many others, as Elethil bowed to Andrahar, then hurriedly sat down again, face flushed. Peloren bit his lip, wanting to reach out, to offer a hand or some consolation, but under the gazes of so august a body of observers, he restrained himself, uncertain what was permitted or proper.

"I see," Adrahil said, eyeing Elethil thoughtfully a moment. Then: "Andrahar?"

"It should be said as well, my lord prince, that if Elethil broke his word, I have not kept mine either," Andrahar said quietly, and gestured to Captain Valandil. "For I was told to do what I could to show that all this old affair was settled between Peloren, Elethil, and myself." He paused, then looked at Elethil, who glanced up when Peloren nudged him gently, and found himself under dark-eyed scrutiny ere Andrahar continued: "I do accept Elethil's apology, and I thank him for it, but he is hardly the only one who has failed in this. For what it is worth to others, we spoke yesterday, the three of us—for my part, I hold all such grievances settled and do not look to find further trouble between us."

"And you agree, Peloren, Elethil?" And when both esquires nodded eagerly, he glanced to either side, at Ornendil and Valandil, and some silent communication seemed to pass between them. For Adrahil nodded then, and said briskly, "Very well. Then if you tell us that honor is satisfied, or at least, that mutual dishonor cancels all debts, and that grievance truly is settled among the three of you now, we shall say nothing more of it."

At this pronouncement, Elethil sighed softly, and Peloren felt the tension in the pit of his stomach unwind in a brief nauseated flutter that dissipated swiftly. Andrahar simply bowed his head, as if in thanks, and sat back in his chair, but he, too, seemed to relax slightly. Adrahil smiled and shook his head.

"Take a moment, gentlemen, but though that matter shall not dog you further, there are still aspects of it that require clarification, and there are, I believe, still many tales to be told. Andrahar, you have said, and the masters, Captain Valandil, and I concur, that what happened on Friday was sadly no extraordinary incident—it was merely the one that was brought to our attention," the prince said, voice hardening a bit, and his grey-eyed gaze swept the circle of men gathered about him. "It pleases me that the three of you have made your peace with each other, but you are only three among hundreds involved in this, however marginally, and we must be able to address them all.

"Therefore, let us hear the rest—Andrahar, we will begin with you, since you have been at the center of trouble since you arrived in Dol Amroth, I fear. Speak—and this time," Adrahil warned, "guard no silences."

Andrahar, who must have expected something of this sort, given Ornendil's similar admonition the other day, nonetheless seemed to steel himself just a little. But then he bowed his head, and replied, "As my lord prince commands." Then after a brief pause, he began to speak.

Thus commenced a long, uncomfortable night, for it was not Andrahar alone who had a tale to tell—Peloren and Elethil were called upon to speak, as well, and there was this time no retreat into silence where others were concerned.

"This is not a private matter," Ornendil prompted Elethil at one point, when Elethil hesitated over names.

Perhaps not—undoubtedly not, but that did not make it any less queasy an affair to speak of incidents and episodes years in the past, or to remember, in light of the present, how little such things had meant at the time, for all that everyone had known they had to be kept under cover. Not that Peloren had been unaware of this: the nagging, gnawing sense of shame, of ambivalence, of the failure to fall to one side or another when in the night or after some particularly painful incident of late he lay and wondered what he was to think—all these were testimony to that silent, constant, ever-felt grating of past and present knowledge.

Still, it was different now. For he was not alone in his bed, or scrubbing pots or latrines while spinning out endless unanswerable—or rather, all too answerable, if one had the will—questions. It was not only Elethil and him shut up in one of their rooms, brooding on their own misery. Now everything was exposed. Everything was recorded: although there were no scribes present, Illian's pen scratched relentlessly away, taking all of it down, while Ornendil and the Prince made less frantic notes for themselves. There was no taking anything back, no rescinding that was not itself marked down by Master Illian's industrious hand at least, which brought strangely to Peloren's mind the Houses of Healing, its healers taking bits of sickness from the sick—looking at little swabs of blood or vomitous remains or bottles of reluctantly given piss and pondering it all, storing it away somewhere and leaving the giver feeling oddly violated at times, as if his malady would never truly vanish, for evidence of it would remain in healers' notebooks and storerooms. Nor did it always end after that initial offering.

"A little more," the healers would urge. "Can you give a little more?" And then they would force liquids on the exhausted patient 'til the poor body complied. Peloren thought of tables and lying facedown on them while healers prodded tender parts and discussed diseased or injured tailbones, and he felt his stomach turn over a bit when Adrahil's gaze turned once more to him. A little more, he thought, and found it more than somewhat appalling just how much he could vomit forth when prodded.

He was relieved therefore when their betters allowed them to fall silent at last in order to make their own reports, and to give their own impressions of how matters stood in higher circles with regard to the presence of a Southron in the ranks. And as Peloren listened, and watched Illian fill sheet after sheet of paper, something like wonderment came over him. All of this has really happened, he thought, and found himself caught between amazement and horror. How can it all have happened?

"Peloren?" It was Kendrion who spoke softly, and he blinked, then looked over at the healer, who was giving him a concerned look. "How do you feel, lad?"

"I—it's not my head." He was aware of a pause in the discussion, and of eyes resting now upon him, and he quickly drew himself up to apologize. "I am sorry, my lords, it is only…"

"Only what?" Kendrion asked, when he faltered.

Peloren gestured vaguely at the stack of papers by Illian's elbow, and managed, after a moment, "How can all of this happen?"

At this frankly bewildered question, Ornendil and Adrahil exchanged a knowing look, and then the Prince replied: "'Tis a question we should like answered as well. But perhaps we shall leave that for another day—you and Andrahar especially ought to rest tonight, I am sure. Master Kendrion?"

"The second watch is drawing to a close, my lord prince," the healer said, by way of discreet suggestion. Adrahil nodded.

"Very well, then. We will speak again later. Elethil, Peloren, Andrahar," the prince said, "thank you for your assistance, but go and get some rest. We shall speak again at need. Good night."

The three young men rose at that, and bowed, and murmured their good nights, then gratefully filed out the door. In the hall beyond, Peloren slid an arm about Elethil's shoulders—brief, bracing embrace—as they all made their way to the stairs. No one spoke; everyone seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts, 'til they reached the first floor and the parting of ways. There, as if by unspoken agreement, they paused, and looked upon each other.

Elethil looked weary and disheartened, which concerned Peloren; Andrahar was harder to read, but only 'til Peloren took note of his hands. Despite the sling, Andrahar was playing with the end of his belt, worrying at it in a way that suggested he was uncomfortable as well, which lent an unsettling force to his intent scrutiny of his erstwhile peers.

"So," Peloren said after awhile, just to break the silence; "what do you think will come of this?"

"'Tis hard to say," Andrahar replied at length. "Prince Adrahil, though, does nothing lightly." He shrugged. "Perhaps something will change."

"Elethil? Did the prince say aught of that to you? You were with him earlier," Peloren asked, and sensed Andrahar, too, leaning a little forward, curious.

But Elethil simply shook his head. "No," he said, in a low voice. "We did not speak of that."

"What, then?" Peloren pressed gently.

At that, Elethil looked from Peloren to Andrahar, and then away, as he said, "I would rather not say right now, Pel. It is—I am very tired. I think I should like it to wait, 'til morning at least."

"Of course," Peloren said quickly, but could not forebear a worried glance sideways at Andrahar, whose expression was inscrutable. But the other nodded, and after a moment said:

"A good night to you both, then."

"Good night," Peloren replied, and slowly turned away, feeling, despite all confessions, the tug of unfinished business. But Elethil was not the only one who was weary, and as the two of them made their way to the Fledglings' Wing, Peloren found himself stifling yawns. Beside him, Elethil walked with his eyes downcast, a still anxious presence, and Peloren thought of Imrahil and Aldan keeping watch, of ever vigilant healers just out of sight, perhaps, and worry gnawed a hollow in his breast.

Which was why, when they reached the Fledglings' Wing, and Peloren's door, Peloren laid a hand on Elethil's shoulder, and urged: "Stay here tonight."

Elethil sighed. "Pel—" he began.

"Please." And something in his voice or face must have moved his friend, or else Elethil was, perhaps, not so eager to be alone with his thoughts as he had given out earlier. For after a moment, he acquiesced.

"All right," he said, and followed Peloren in.

It was dark, and at some point, it had begun to rain: a steady drizzle that beat gently against the shutters. Peloren lit the candle in its sconce by the washstand and turned down the sheets. Silently, they undressed, Elethil folding clothing and setting it neatly on Peloren's chair, Peloren less neatly tossing his borrowed things into the basket of laundry. But he took his time about it, made a check of his room by habit, so that by the time he was done, Elethil had already slid into bed and taken the place nearest to the wall. Peloren crawled in after him, the two of them shifting about a bit, seeking the most comfortable way to spend this night, for esquires' cots were narrow, and without the aid of drunken stupor, did not easily sleep two men.

They ended spooned up against each other, this time with Peloren on the outside. And he sighed as he closed his eyes, one arm tightening about Elethil, who grunted, but then seemed to settle. Outside, muted thunder rumbled, and the rain thickened, grew fiercer. But neither esquire heard it—nestled warmly together beneath the blankets, they slept soundly, waiting on the dawn.

~ 0 ~

In other rooms, however, thunder had a wakeful audience. Back in Adrahil's study, Ornendil glanced out the window as lightning sheeted the sky, illuminating raindrops as they slid down the glass, and he counted to ten before the thunder pealed out.

With the departure of the esquires and Andrahar, the prince's remaining guests had taken the opportunity to stand up, stretch out a bit. No one left, however, knowing full well that their night's business had not yet come to an end. The pause, however, was welcome, and Adrahil had offered drinks to any who wanted one. Ornendil had contemplated the idea, but rejected it eventually. His wife, Helevrian, knew very well that late nights were a part and parcel of an Armsmaster's duties, and usually she did not complain of them. However, she was not nearly so tolerant of drinking late at night, even on feast days, and Ornendil was not in the mood to face wifely remonstrances over such a matter.

Théorwyn, however, took advantage of the offer, as did Valandil and Master Kendrion, and Adrahil poured himself a drink as well before the six of them sat down once more. For a time, there was silence, but then the prince spoke.

"Well, gentlemen, we have certainly heard more than we might wish of failures in our ranks, but also generally—the court is no kinder to Andrahar than are the esquires, and Elethil's father is, unfortunately, a problem about which we can do very little, I fear," Adrahil said. "Nevertheless, we must decide what is to be done to curb the abuse Andrahar has suffered, but also to try prevent Elethil from making Meldarion's solution his own."

"How did it go with him earlier, my lord prince?" Ornendil asked, for he had been the one to tell Adrahil of Elethil's situation, almost as soon as he had returned to Dol Amroth.

"Let me think on this, and I shall speak with him," the prince had said upon hearing of the trouble. "Perhaps something can be arranged."

Ornendil had agreed, though he had wondered what Adrahil meant by 'arranged.' Now, the prince replied: "'Tis difficult to say. A lad driven so far cannot but suffer doubts about himself, doubts which may make it impossible for him to take up his former place without undue risk. I can do little about that, I fear, for doubt goes deep in Elethil, even before all of this—the lord of Caldor is a hard man to all, and perhaps especially to his sons. But I have given Elethil a set of choices: he may decide to take a place here in Dol Amroth's court—a lad willing to be taught is always one we can use. Or, so long as there is nothing to fault in his sword-work, I have said that after the summer trials, depending on the outcome and his own wishes, I will have him placed with one of the infantry companies. I hope he will no longer feel his back is to a wall, therefore—that he will feel that there is a way forward for him, come what may."

At that, Ornendil and Valandil exchanged somewhat uncomfortable looks. "If he can be made to see there are other ways than the sword," Valandil said after a moment, "then that is good. But if it becomes known what he tried to do, and he still unblooded, my lord prince, I do not know how well he would be received by other Swan Knights."

Adrahil inclined his head. "True enough, but I do not see that that needs to be said. Peloren and the others were frightened, yes, but in point of fact, Elethil returned of his own will. Simply because we feared the worst does not mean that he intended it."

"We should lie for him, then, my lord?" Valandil challenged.

"I think at this point, we owe all concerned the courtesy of refusing to allow an incident that should have been settled more than a year ago to claim any more victims," Adrahil replied firmly. Valandil still seemed unhappy with this, but he knew that tone of voice and look. And perhaps, too, the prince's words made some impression, for after a moment, he acquiesced.

"If he passes the trials, then," the captain of the Swan Knights said.

"That is all I ask, captain. That, and that we keep in mind that this is not a reason to test his mettle further—Elethil has endured more than enough, and more than many others. Let us not mistake, then, the effect of our own errors for evidence of a need to subject him to further probing, as if he has followed the same course of training that all other esquires have followed," Adrahil admonished, taking each man's eye in turn, 'til he was satisfied his point had been made.

"Very well," the prince said after a moment. "Let us speak then of some of these others, since we have the space. Illian, Ornendil, you have been inquiring among the esquires and elsewhere—what have you discovered of how precisely Friday's encounter in the hall came to Harthil's ears and into your hands?"

Illian glanced at Ornendil and inclined his head fractionally, deferring to the Armsmaster. "What Andrahar told us tonight fits with what we had found," Ornendil reported. "The only esquire who saw anything directly was Uilovar, and he did not see Andrahar and Elethil and Peloren together, or hear anything of what passed between them. He left Master Harthil and allowed Andrahar to pass him, then saw Peloren helping Elethil up from the floor further down the hall. He drew his own conclusions and, uneasy, told a few of his friends.

"From there, the tale made its way to Torlas, among others. But according to Uilovar, it was Torlas who approached him and suggested someone ought to know of his concerns, It was also Torlas who persuaded him to approach Master Harthil, who—" and here, Ornendil's tone acquired a sardonic note "—was recommended on account of Harthil's clear support of Andrahar."

At that, Théorwyn snorted and muttered something undoubtedly rude in Rohirric, and Adrahil sighed softly. Illian grimaced in distaste. "And what of Celdir?" Master Kendrion spoke up suddenly. The healer spread his hands slightly as heads turned, and said, "From all I have ever seen, Celdir and Torlas are thick as thieves. Iordel, too. Did Torlas act alone in this?"

"So far as Torlas is willing to admit, yes," Ornendil replied, and got another round of sighs that echoed his frustration. But the Armsmaster shook his head. "So he maintains. They are friends, of course, and we know that friendship has stymied many a search for truth. But he holds it was his idea—if he is covering for Celdir, either he believes nothing will come of this if only he holds out, or else he does not know what the consequences might be."

"Or else he knows them, and chooses to keep Celdir out of his account," Illian added, darkly.

"There is that possibility," Ornendil acknowledged, unhappily.

"And you do believe that Torlas at least was malicious in suggesting Harthil?" Adrahil asked, sharply.

"It would beggar belief to think it otherwise, given his enmity for Andrahar, and lately, as report has it, also Peloren and Elethil," Ornendil replied. But he sighed and admitted, "We have no proof of it, however."

"Even were they innocent of all partisan interest," Illian put in, "we know Harthil does not care for Andrahar. I cannot but think that, appearances aside, he used the complaint to attack Andrahar—we know now that he did ask questions about him during an examination, which is hardly appropriate." The Master of Records shook his head regretfully. "Where Harthil is concerned, I fear, I should have been more vigilant—I told Andrahar at the start of term to come to me for help if he needed it, but when he did not, I did not press him, either. I thought it was enough to alert him to Harthil's dislike, but I should have kept a closer eye on Harthil." Illian grimaced. "'Tis an oversight I fear I may have committed many times since Harthil began teaching the esquires."

"Harthil is my affair to deal with," Adrahil said then, and Ornendil felt a slight shiver go down his spine. For all that Adrahil was usually the most congenial of men, it needed a fool to think him soft, and there was a chill, dangerous note in his voice that suggested Harthil would be wise to keep his head down the next time he entered his liege-lord's presence. Illian merely bowed his head, seeming just as glad to leave Harthil to the prince, and Ornendil could not blame him. Men like Harthil, who made the secrets of others their business, were dangerous to deal with, even when they shared one's own loyalties.

Esquires, however, were another matter. "I will have a word with Celdir, whatever comes of this," Ornendil said. "Assuming we cannot prove he directed Torlas to bring Uilovar and a complaint to Master Harthil, he ought still to know we have an eye on him. It may convince him to curb his spite and keep it to himself, even if I doubt it would rid him of it. Some hatreds go too deep."

"And if that is true," Théorwyn asked, in an uncharacteristically subdued voice, "what are we to do, in the end? We wish to put an end to the sort of strife and dissension that has surrounded Andrahar since he arrived, and which lies at the back of all our more recent troubles. But where strife breeds from hatred long ingrained against our enemies, we cannot change every mind, yet can we afford to do less?"

"Dol Amroth can afford it, or so I believe," Adrahil replied, his grey gaze sweeping over the assembled officers. "It has always been the privilege of the Prince of Dol Amroth to refuse admittance to or dismiss from the esquires' ranks any man he deemed unworthy of it, all apart from the judgment of the masters. It will henceforth be unacceptable to me that any candidate for a white belt be unwilling to give Andrahar the respect he is due—I do not care whether he likes Andrahar or not; but let it come out that his dislike has at root a hatred for Haradrim in general, and he will no longer be welcome here. I will make this clear to the fathers who send word to me of their intentions to send their sons.

"It will cost us—there will undoubtedly be some who refuse to accept such terms. To keep up our numbers, we shall have to turn to the enlisted men more often, which shall require us to bear more of the expense of training and equipage, especially at the beginning. But we can do this. Beyond that, however, it should be made clear to sergeants and to officers as well: he who cannot put such ill-feeling will not attain to any rank."

"And what of those who have it already?" Kendrion asked.

"There we come to the harder question," Adrahil admitted, and frowned, steepling his fingers before him as he looked to Valandil. "None of us wishes to have to weigh five, ten, thirty years or more, perhaps, of good service against an unyielding mistrust that, at least for the moment, is given to but one junior Swan Knight out of all our company, and which otherwise is, alas, often useful and the natural product of a long history of warfare. Yet we do have, also, a number of younger men we hope to promote when the opportunity and need arises, do we not?"

Valandil sighed softly. "We do have a list of such men, 'tis true. But if we aim at all those who mistrust the Haradrim, there may be few men left to choose from, whether already commissioned or otherwise. And there is still the question of bringing them to understand the problem, though perhaps that shall be easier done now than in the past. But beyond that, can we make so broad a stroke? I do not wish to approach men with a reproach or worse with no specific incident to speak of."

"I agree that we must tread carefully in this," Adrahil replied. "Yet not so carefully that nothing is achieved."

For a time after that, no one spoke. It was as if everyone were hoping someone else would do so, and find some way forward, though Adrahil seemed to be watching his officers rather closely, and when that grey-eyed gaze fell upon him, the Armsmaster endured it for a little while, ere he looked elsewhere. Outside, the rain came still down, though more gently now, and as Ornendil watched it streak the window, he thought of his own complicity hitherto, and came at length to a decision.

"Valandil is right—we will need to look first to those men of whom we can make some specific complaint, to make clear to others that in the future, there will be consequences for those will not see the problem at hand," he said. "That must be our aim: to make those who follow us understand that it is a failure of chivalry and of honor to think so poorly of the Haradrim who are our enemies that one of their number who has given his allegiance to us should be thought of and treated as if he bore some taint within himself. For the moment, accepting what Andrahar has said as true—and I think we have enough evidence, even from looking simply at ourselves, to say that he is right to paint so grim a picture—then we cannot hope to turn every man in the company around, nor can we dismiss everyone who fails to do so. We should lose too many. But that does not mean we cannot redress wrong, or that caution need stymie efforts to root out the deeper problem."

"Continue," Adrahil urged quietly, his eyes intent as he gazed upon the Armsmaster, who got the slightly disconcerting impression that the prince had been waiting for just this speech. But never mind that, he told himself sternly, this is about duty; it matters not if Adrahil anticipates it.

So Ornendil nodded, and drew a breath against faltering. "Hear me out, then, in full, my lords," he said. "Here is what I propose…"


Well, it is still Friday, so I'm not technically late in posting this...



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