The morning had begun late, when Master Kendrion knocked on Peloren's door, waking both Peloren and Elethil. The master healer had blinked a moment to find both of them there and rubbing their eyes, but then he had smiled, and said, "Good morning to you both. Well, at least I need not walk up the hall to find Elethil. May I enter?"
Peloren had stood aside without thinking twice—what reason had he to refuse Master Kendrion?—and he had submitted to the healer's examination of him without protest. His head did not ache, which had pleased him, though he had chosen not to brave the mirror this morning. Instead, he had simply splashed water on his face and carefully used the towel on badly bruised flesh once Kendrion had pronounced him well enough to face the day.
"Both of you know you are to remain off the lists until further notice. But the prince and Master Ornendil have asked me to tell you that you are not to leave the keep today, unless it is to visit the stables. They may have more questions for you, and wish you easily found," Kendrion had informed them both.
"Will we have to stay here until they come to some decision, sir?" Peloren had asked, as he pulled on a shirt and trousers drawn from the basket of dirty laundry under his bed.
Kendrion had shaken his head. "I doubt it. 'Tis just for today, I think. And you may be surprised: decisions may come more swiftly than you imagine, Peloren."
"Will there be a healer about today?" Elethil had asked then from where he sat on Peloren's bed, his voice low. Peloren's jaw tightened slightly at that, and he had looked to Master Kendrion, who frowned—no doubt over Elethil's demoralized tone. But after a long, scrutinizing look at Elethil, he had glanced thoughtfully to Peloren, who straightened under the master healer's regard.
"If you will keep Peloren's company today, then no," Kendrion had replied. "Have I your word?"
Elethil had bitten back a frown, Peloren could tell, but then he nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Very well, then. Should either of you need anything, however—should your head start to hurt, Peloren, or should either of you have any other complaint, whether some bodily pain or a need to speak of things in confidence—then do not delay, but come you to the Houses and find me," Kendrion replied.
"Aye, sir," the two of them had chorused, and Kendrion, content, had departed.
In the silence that followed, Peloren went to the window, undid the latch on the shutters, and pushed them open, admitting the hazy daylight. The sky was streaked with clouds still, though a stiff breeze promised to shepherd them inland before noon. Peloren stood there for a time, letting his senses take their fill of the day, before he turned and walked over to his clothespress and opened the doors, eyeing his wardrobe. Since he was banned from the lists and denied the freedom of the city and country beyond the walls of the keep, he did not bother with his uniform. Instead, he chose an older shirt and trousers—not yet stable-wear, but destined one day for it—and gathered a few other necessary garments to hand.
Then closing the clothespress, he turned to Elethil, and said, "I'm for a bath. And then I've laundry to do. Coming?"
Elethil bowed his head a moment, running his hands through his hair, but then he reached for his shirt and tunic and stockings that he had laid on Peloren's chair and began drawing them on. Once finished, he stepped into his boots, then stooped and rooted about under the bed 'til he found Peloren's laundry basket. He dragged it forth and rose to his feet with it. "I'll help you scrub," he offered.
Peloren smiled in response, though privately he worried. But he kept worry behind his teeth and gestured towards the door. "After you," he said, and followed his friend out.
Peloren ended by taking longer in the baths than he had originally intended—having nowhere to go, and nothing truly pressing to do, he lounged a bit, and took awhile with the bath brush, grateful finally to be able to rid himself of the sense that blood lingered still upon him. The quick bath he had managed in Calardin had been just enough to make himself presentable, but he had felt dirty all the same.
After he had dried himself off, rewound bandages with Elethil's help, and dressed in fresh clothing, the two of them descended to the laundry and did a brutally swift cleansing of Peloren's clothes, borrowed and otherwise. They worked with the hard-won efficiency of esquires who had seen entirely too much of the washroom in the past year, wrung everything out, and hung it neatly out to dry on the lines.
And then they were left with time heavy on their hands. Fortunately, after giving some thought to the matter, Peloren remembered himself of his promise the night before. "I have an errand to the stables," he said, but then added: "First, though, the kitchens."
The kitchens were busy already—or rather, still busy, for to feed so many thrice a day was quite the task, and the cooks had been hard at work since before dawn. Esquires who missed a meal generally were greeted with a few choice words about timeliness and directed to the night hearth, with its ever-ready porridge.
However, word had apparently got out about Friday night's misadventures, for when they appeared in the doorway to beg some bread, Cook took one look, then quickly bustled them over to a preparation table. At her command, two lasses appeared to clear the table, and in short order Cook herself brought them not only porridge and bread, but also a few sausages and some of the last of the winter store of fruits.
Elethil, who took a sip of the milk laid out for them, blinked, and leaned forward to whisper, "She put honey in this!"
"Mayhap Mistress Falwen is right, and there's some use for scars," Peloren replied, and was pleased when Elethil smiled a little at the jest.
They ate quickly, the mark of appreciative esquire appetites. Peloren, despite inhaling his breakfast, nevertheless carefully kept half of a dried apple back, tucking it into his scrip as he rose. Then, since it never hurt to be in Cook's good graces, they took up their plates and slipped into the scullery and cleaned their own dishes. They thanked Cook politely, got a wave and a nod in response, and then hurried off to the stables.
There were puddles in the yard this morning, and a stiff, cold breeze from over the bay. Clouds glided down the sky, passing swiftly overhead and across the sun's face from time to time, casting luminous shadows. Peloren pulled his cloak a little more closely about himself, stepping lively about the puddles, and spared a moment's pitying thought for Imrahil, Aldan, and the others, who no doubt had already run a few miles through muddy fields and now were at the mercy of the Armsmaster or the Master of Horses.
The stable at least was warmer, though quieter than usual—there were rows of empty stalls, for despite the weather, knights and esquires alike were afield with their horses. Peloren made for Lightfall's stall, hurrying when Lightfall greeted him from afar.
"Hush, lad," he admonished when he reached him, catching the animal's head and stroking Lightfall's long face gently. "Ssshh. Here," he said, quickly retrieving the bit of apple he had saved. His horse sniffed, and then daintily licked the offering right out of his hand, munching happily. Peloren smiled slightly. "There's my lad. I told you I would come today." He looked over at Elethil, who was leaning back against the stable wall, watching, and said: "I'll help you brush Greywind if you'll help me with Lightfall."
Thus in short order, they stood to either side of Peloren's horse, brushing his dappled coat, while Lightfall basked in the attention, tail swishing idly. And as Peloren plied his brush, he watched his friend. To all appearances, Elethil was himself, had been himself, more or less, since Kendrion had left them—strangely between speech and speechlessness, he was brisk with the brush, though not careless or hasty. Absorbed in the chore, he only occasionally reprimanded Lightfall when the horse nosed about his person in search of more treats.
In the quiet industry of hands and company of friends bred peaceful contentment—so Peloren had ever been taught, and found it often true. But this morning, in light of all that had happened in the past months, and especially of the past few days, he found it precarious, elusive—as much hope and wish as reality, and he dared not ask after Elethil's state of mind, fearful lest the question itself undo everything, if there were any contentment to undo.
And so he hung on little signs, or rather, their absences: on the fact that no anxious, moody furrow marked Elethil's brow, that he seemed less tired than he had of late, that (perhaps in the absence of a healer and with someone to 'distract' him) he seemed, if not relieved, neither upset nor broody. Though silence had never itself been a measure of Elethil's mood, Peloren thought it seemed easy enough.
Nevertheless, he wondered what passed behind those eyes and the steady scratch of brush bristles down Lightfall's back. But Elethil said nothing, and Peloren did not wish to give the impression of being overly concerned, of mistrusting his friend. Above all, he did not wish to wound anew pride that had already been shattered once with his questions. He therefore carefully said nothing and strove to keep his attention on Lightfall, who, being a horse, was unburdened by such anxieties and fears as plagued Men and well pleased by his master's assiduous care and concern.
When, however, Lightfall had been brushed to a glossy sheen, and Peloren had carefully run a hand down his legs, checked his hoofs, and inspected the stall, silently blessing whatever stable lad had cleaned it in his absence, and the two of them made their farewells to the gelding, Elethil gave his friend a sideways look. At once too knowing and ambivalent, it perhaps said more than intended, for in it gaped a woundedness. It was as if a turn of the head had revealed another face, or another side of his face, scarred and misshapen—a map of the soul's fragility and Peloren felt his cheeks heat. He felt guilty, then, for looking, the more so for seeing, but how could he possibly refrain from either, knowing what he knew, worried as he was for Elethil?
Elethil said nothing, however. It was habit, perhaps, or perhaps it was simply that there was no real need to speak further at the moment. Was it not enough that they knew how matters stood, and knew that the other knew as well? With no way forward, and no return to what had been, silence seemed best for the moment, and they groomed Greywind without uttering a word.
Afterwards, they left the stables and they wandered for a time, though they kept to the well-trodden ways of the keep, obedient to the Prince's command. Still unsettled, they were not much inclined to sit the whole day indoors, and after awhile, on unspoken agreement, they climbed up onto the ramparts, to the broad platform over the inner gates where archers could stand and shoot down should any enemy come so far. On a winter's day such as this, it seemed nearly deserted, with but three guards stationed there: one on each approach, and none of them at all interested in a wayward pair of esquires.
Peloren climbed up into a crenel, then onto the top of a merlon, while Elethil, perhaps unwilling to rouse further fears, settled safely below his friend, looping his arms about his knees as he sat with his back to the rampart wall. There they sat and stared out sightlessly, or watched the shadows slowly dwindling as the sun rose higher. The day grew less chill, though the breeze was still cold and brisk, whipping at cloaks and hair. Summer is still three months to come, Peloren thought, longing suddenly to make good on his promise to revisit Calardin, for it was pleasant to nap on the sun-warmed sand in the afternoon.
Of course, this summer might well be different, assuming he passed his trials. Who knew whether he would be stationed at Dol Amroth, or whether he might be sent elsewhere, to some other garrison further south? There was always Harondor, after all, and Swan Knights might also find themselves among marines, guarding more shores than those about the city.
And what about Elya? Where will he be? he wondered. He longed to know what Prince Adrahil had told him last night, before their council had begun, but he did not dare to ask at the moment. Kendrion had said, though, that they were to stay off the lists for a time, not forever, and he had not said differently to Elethil, which must mean something, though Peloren did not know what. But whatever that something might be, it seemed that at least Elethil would not be leaving Dol Amroth soon. That was surely good, was it not?
And yet, that was not enough to relieve Elethil of whatever care or anxiety burdened him still, and so Peloren could not rest content either, shifting restlessly on his high and stony seat.
"Did I ever give you the Yuletide gift I found?" Peloren asked abruptly, apropos of nothing. Elethil looked up at him, startled, and then he frowned slightly, seeming to rummage through memory.
"No," he said after a moment; "I do not think so."
"I must have forgot all about it, between Andrahar and everything else," Peloren mused.
"What was it?" Elethil asked.
"A pipe. I found it at an instrument maker's stall—nicely varnished. 'Tis a bit lower-voiced than that small one you have, and sweeter-sounding, too," Peloren replied.
"Mm." Elethil bowed his head, staring at the stonework. Then: "I am not very good at piping, you know."
"Well, if you practiced more often," Peloren said. And then, when this brought no response, he added, a little hesitantly, "I thought it might cheer you now and again."
A silence, then: "Do you know how I learned?"
It was Peloren's turn to frown, and he did so, tipping his head back a bit as he recalled the first time he had learned of his friend's hobby. "Your father's old beekeeper taught you. What was his name? Tilimar?"
"Tilandir. Aye, he taught me. He thought the bees gave more honey for a well-piped tune." Elethil shrugged. "Mayhap he was right; I never knew, because he always played for them, every night. I liked him—he was gentle with them, for all their stings. I badgered him into teaching me how to play. He did not want to at first."
"Why not?" Peloren asked.
"Because," Elethil replied simply, "a lord's son has his proper duty to land and liege-lord, which is different from that of peasants or court harpers." He sighed softly. "Father wanted his sons to be knights. When he learned of the lessons, he sent Tilandir away. And he thrashed me for shirking and for disobeying him."
Perched above him, Peloren silently cursed his own clumsiness that had blundered right into so unhappy a memory, all the while wincing on behalf of the terrified boy he could all too easily imagine his friend had been.
Not that he was entirely surprised by the revelation—that was the trouble, for Elethil's infrequent comments about his father suggested a hard, unyielding man, the sort of man Peloren knew clung to the little farming manors that dotted Anfalas. His own family ruled one such, though Hathwyn was a little larger, a little nearer to Dol Amroth—near enough that a bit of the city wafted in from time to time in the form of merchants taking a boat across the way, bringing with them a taste for the palpably finer things and a certain something more. A taste for an air less pure, perhaps, or less harsh—for whatever it was, the lack of which made men like Elethil's father.
"Father worried I was soft-headed as a boy," Elethil murmured suddenly, drawing Peloren from his thoughts. "He feared I would not make much of a knight if I had a harper's restless hands and head full of songs. I liked playing though," he said, a little wistfully. "I think that small pipe was the first thing I bought on my own, when I came here."
"Do not go back to Caldor, Elya," Peloren pleaded softly. And when his friend let his head loll back against the stone, and gazed up at him, he urged, "Surely some company here in Dol Amroth could use you, if it comes to that."
"Maybe. Until they learned how I came among them," Elethil replied, then added: "And they would learn of it, you know."
"The Prince has not cast you out, Elya, not yet," Peloren reminded his friend, doggedly.
"No, he has not," Elethil agreed quietly, and closed his eyes against the sun's light that fell bright upon his upturned face.
They spoke no more after that, but eventually, they left their perch above the gates and made their way back down with the noon bells to join their peers for lunch. Imrahil spotted them first and hailed the pair of them, waving them over to join him and Aldan and Teilin and Ambor.
"Imri," Peloren said, and nodded to the others. "Good afternoon." Elethil simply nodded. But before further greetings could be exchanged, the Prince and Princess arrived in the hall. To the sighing rustle of cloaks and scraping of benches and chairs, everyone rose and, as Adrahil and Olwen took their places, turned to face west.
After the full count of five, and the prince's word of release—"So let the daytide gather us"—the meal began and everyone took their seats once more as pages came about, bearing the midday meal with them. And as dishes began to circulate, Imrahil smiled at them and said:
"'Tis good to see you both back."
"Aye," Teilin agreed, before either Peloren or Elethil could reply. "We wondered if you two would show after this morning, though," he said, grinning. "Thought the masters might be keeping you in their pockets."
"Or the healers' pockets," Aldan put in, giving Peloren a critical appraisal, ere he, too, smiled, seeming relieved, and said, "You don't look half bad for a man who found a Corsair raid."
"I wouldn't know," Peloren replied, as he helped himself to the beets being passed about. "Haven't seen a mirror yet."
"And he's modest," Ambor chuckled, shaking his head.
"He's famished," Imrahil corrected, looking his two friends over. "Both of them are—you must be, for you missed supper last night."
"Well, your father did feed us somewhat," Peloren reassured him, for they had taken time for some light fare the night before, in between confessions. "And Cook took care of us this morning. We thought of you—sweating on the fields and running hither and thither." Groans issued from the others, and Aldan threw a napkin at him in disgust. Peloren grinned, and glanced at Elethil, who seemed absorbed in stirring his soup, though the corners of his mouth twitched a bit.
"There is definitely somewhat afoot, if my aches have aught to tell," Aldan said, by way of making banter speak to more serious things. He hesitated, glancing from Peloren and Elethil to Imrahil, and then back again, ere he seemed to come to some decision. Lowering his voice, that others further up the table should not overhear, he asked, "I do not suppose there is anything you could tell us?"
Peloren looked sideways at Elethil, and then at Imrahil, who raised a brow, ere he replied, "I do not think so. That is, I do not think we should talk of some things here…"
"Had to try," Aldan replied, ere he turned his attention to his lunch.
For a time, conversation lapsed, everyone being concerned with filling his stomach after the rigors of the morning. But eventually, Imrahil sighed and pushed his bowl away, and after a quick glance up to the high table, he said, "Well, I suppose you learned how things went here in Dol Amroth after we parted Friday night. But what happened to you and Andra in Calardin?"
Peloren gave the young prince a slightly puzzled look as he hurriedly swallowed a mouthful of bread. "Surely you must have heard something, Imri," he said. "Master Ornendil brought most everyone home the next day."
"Oh aye," Imrahil replied, and waggled the fingers of one hand as folk did after airy aspirations. "But no one really knows the tale—they just know how it ended, which seemed good enough to me. Of course," he added quickly, "if you would rather not talk about it, I shan't press it, but you were out there alone for some time before anyone could reach you."
So he said, and leaned an elbow on the table, and he might have seemed quite the enraptured listener, but as Peloren stared at him, he became aware, suddenly, of the listening silence beyond him. The Heir raised an elegant brow at him, and a hard, conspiratorial gleam shone in his eyes, and Peloren realized it was not so much Imrahil's curiosity that the Heir desired to feed.
Or rather, force-feed, Peloren thought, recognizing the young prince's intent. Peloren hesitated a moment, for he was seized by a strange reluctance to speak, and his mouth felt dry of a sudden. Memory of blood-spattered stone and sand flashed through his mind, and he swallowed hard.
But in the end, he nodded. For we've had enough of keeping our own counsel, Peloren decided. Let us see what comes of taking Imrahil's—it can hardly do us more harm! "Well," he began, "after you left, we had to fend for ourselves, and we only had the villagers to help us, so…"
He spun the tale then, or rather, let it spin him, and was grateful, after a while, when Elethil's fingers brushed his hand lightly and came to rest there, unobtrusively. And although he was not willing to repeat in any detail the difficult conversation he and Andrahar had had, he did not fail to praise Andrahar's actions, whether in battle or in seeing Peloren through that shaky, awful moment in Dorhan's kitchen.
"And that is all, truly," he finished when he could think of nothing more to say of the events of the night. "We saw to the dead—the Haradrim and the villagers—the next morning, and I slept quite a lot. And then we rode home the next afternoon, as soon as Master Kendrion thought it safe enough to leave his patients in the care of Mistress Falwen and the other village women. It mostly all happened very quickly," he ended a bit lamely.
"It does tend to," Teilin said, and sighed distractedly, glancing aside at Aldan and Ambor, who nodded their agreement.
"I wish I could have gone back with Ornendil to make sure of you both, but he sent me to report to Father—no doubt to keep me out of the way!" The Heir sighed, then grimaced. "And I am sorry it took so long to send help. I went as swiftly as I could, but…" Peloren merely shrugged, dismissing the apology. Imrahil gave him a smile for that, and reached for his cup. "To courage that draws luck—long may it last!"
Peloren flushed. "Imri," he protested, but feebly in the face of how quickly his friends took up that toast. And:
"If you'll not take praise, Pel, at least do not grudge luck her due," Aldan advised. "Your luck and Andrahar's—drink up!"
"And it would seem there is more to be said," Imrahil murmured, even as they finished their ale. He sat up a little straighter, even as Voradril appeared at the esquires' table.
"Listen closely, lads," the sergeant said. "His Highness wishes a word with everyone after lunch. As soon as you are done here, go to the Great Hall and assemble there. No benches, and stand to the front this time." This provoked a round of puzzled, hushed murmuring, and Voradril arched a brow, then rapped his knuckles on the table, drawing attention back to him. "No benches," he repeated, "and I would not advise being late—lunch ends in little more than a quarter hour. Be in the Great Hall on time or I will see you this evening. Understood?"
"Aye, sir," the esquires chorused. The sergeant looked over them a long moment, then apparently satisfied that they did indeed understand, nodded and made his way over to the little knot of sergeants gathered around Armsmaster Ornendil, who had left the high table to stand near the door to the commons. The Heir stared after him for a little while, then looked to his father.
The Prince had his head bent towards the Princess, listening to some comment she murmured into his ear, and he nodded from time to time. At length, he straightened, and then he noticed his son watching him. It seemed to Peloren that some silent communication passed between them, for Imrahil lifted his chin slightly, as if in acknowledgment of some word or other, ere he turned once more to his friends.
"Well," the Heir said quietly, "since we are wanted—shall we?"
Although they were among the first to reach the Great Hall, others were not far behind them, and despite its size, it filled swiftly as not only esquires, but Swan Knights, arrived and formed little clots according to company. And as the minutes bled away towards the end of the hour, the clots spread out, forming neat lines of men before the dais.
But as ordered, it was the esquires who occupied the front rows for a change, and a very nervous company they made. There were no few glances thrown back over shoulders, and the low buzz of whispered discussion hovered on the air. Peloren, surreptitiously eyeing his fellows, caught sight of a scowling Faldion further down the line, and he had an easy view of Celdir, who stood but two rows forward, talking urgently with Iordel.
But when the bells tolled the hour, backs stiffened as everyone settled expectantly to attention, awaiting the arrival of the Prince and the masters. Nor had they long to wait—the bells had not yet finished their ringing when Adrahil and Olwen made their way down the aisle that had been left open. Followed by the masters and Captain Valandil, they mounted the dais, and everyone took up his or her place. But no one sat, not even the Princess, who stood straight as a sword at her lord husband's side.
When the clamor of the bells had died away at last, Adrahil stood forward. "Gentlemen," he said, "it is the duty of a Prince to secure justice in his realm, and as the saying commonly goes, he who cannot rule his own house should fear to rule others. I have called you here this day to address a matter that has laid a black mark on our house—a matter that concerns each of us. Today, we are not merely witnesses to justice—you and I stand also as accused by it."
The Prince paused, and his gaze swept over the assembled company of knights and esquires, regarding them all with cool grey eyes, ere he ordered: "Andrahar of Umbar, Peloren of Hathwyn, Elethil of Caldor—you will stand forward."
At that, Peloren felt his stomach turn over, and lunch felt like a leaden lump in his innards, as momentarily, the past bled into the present. For just a moment, it was two years ago, and he and Elethil and the others awaited their judgment…
Then Teilin nudged him gently, and he blinked, and the past slipped away. Drawing a deep breath, he moved to obey, striving to seem unconcerned as he made his way past his brethren and into the aisle, falling in at Elethil's side. And though he had no desire to incur his liege-lord's wrath, he walked slowly, for he had as little desire to stand before prince and assembly any longer than he must, waiting for Andrahar. For Andrahar had further to go to join them: being the most junior knight, he had taken a place in the last row, and Peloren counted the other's brisk, light steps as he approached the dais.
When Andrahar had come to rest at Peloren's side, the Prince continued. "Last Friday evening, while most of us were unaware of any danger, a village north of Dol Amroth, Calardin, came under threat of the Corsairs. There is every reason to believe that more such threats shall arise, and that we shall be compelled to find some way to meet them, but on Friday, none of us imagined there was anything to fear.
"Thus Calardin's people, though little distant from Dol Amroth, should have perished for our unwariness, and we know not what other mischief might have been wrought had not Andrahar had the presence of mind to send warning to us and had not he and Peloren stood against the Corsairs at the only defensible point available. In doing so, in discerning the demands of duty in an impossible situation, they showed themselves worthy of the Code they swore to keep, and of the honor that attends it.
"And yet," said Adrahil, his voice hardening, "it seems that that honor is worth less in our halls than in a fisherman's cot. For some time, we have been aware of the ugly, demeaning sentiment where Andrahar is concerned, though he has done nothing to merit it. At the same time, ironically, it has been brought to our attention that Peloren and Elethil have lately been subject to abuse for past offense against Andrahar, though that matter, arising out of a hatred of Haradrim common to us all, has been settled long since and the grievance laid to rest among them. It has gone so far, in fact, as to draw in an instructor, who ought to take measures to end such quarrels, not exacerbate them.
"The Swan Knights of Dol Amroth live by their Code, which demands that honor govern all their dealings, be they with friends or with enemies. And it requires that when honor fails, brothers shall correct each other, submitting themselves to the authority of captain and lord at need." Adrahil paused once more, the silence lending weight to his words, as he finished: "Hear, then, the judgment of your lord.
"It is clear that we have failed to uphold the requirements of honor where Andrahar of Umbar is concerned: in this judgment, all are included, esquire and knight alike, and to the degree that we have failed to prevent this failure, we, too, cannot claim innocence. Let the reckoning stand then as restitution and a new beginning:
"From this day forward, any man who cannot treat one of his own brethren with the respect the Code demands even for an enemy is subject to dismissal from this company. Where one of your brethren finds his roots in a people foreign or hostile to us, this shall be no cause to treat him with any less respect than any other, or to demean his countrymen before him. If a man cannot submit fully to this rule, let him come to us this day and accept our thanks for his service, but he must leave our company. And better he leave it of his own will, with his honor intact, than that at some later date he stand foresworn before us for judgment, for there can be no lenience in this matter."
A murmuring arose at this, and Peloren glanced sideways at Andrahar, who was staring fixedly at the floor, apparently as surprised as any other. Adrahil let the urgent whispers run for a time, but at length he raised a hand, and the company quieted. He looked to Andrahar then, and said, "We have said it before, but it merits repeating: Despite the injustice you have suffered at our hands, you have held faithfully to our Code, and have ever done so. You have been a good and faithful knight, and we thank you for correcting us when it was needed. We hope that we shall take up the lesson so well."
At that, Andrahar bowed. "Thank you, my lord prince," he murmured.
"Recompense requires no thanks. You may return to your place, Andrahar." Andrahar bowed once more, and after a brief, indecipherable glance at Peloren and Elethil, made his way to the back of the room once more. Adrahil waited for a few moments, ere he turned his attention to the esquires standing anxiously before him.
"Esquires Peloren and Elethil," he said, and Peloren felt his spine stiffen instinctively. "Two years ago, you stood before this company for your actions against one of your brothers and for usurping the authority of the Prince of Dol Amroth to judge his subjects. Today, you stand before us in part because others now usurp that same authority to judge you on a matter already ruled upon. That some of this has occurred under the guise of a particular understanding of fraternal correction should not excuse those who presumed to judge.
"However, as in the case of troubles that have attached to Andrahar because he is of the Haradrim, that you have suffered so is a failure that has its origin above you, or beyond you. Master Ornendil, Master Théorwyn, Master Illian, and Captain Valandil concur that responsibility cannot lie only with the esquires, not even those who perpetrated abuses against you. Therefore, our judgment is as follows—Master Ornendil, if you would?" The Prince gestured gracefully to the Armsmaster who stepped forward, producing a sealed letter, which he quickly opened and read from.
"Firstly, what has hitherto passed as fraternal correction among esquires is suspended, and shall not be resumed. All complaints will be heard before sergeants or officers, and all disciplinary measures will also pass before them, whether serious or minor. Demerits will be reconsidered in light of this.
"Secondly, any esquire who refuses to acknowledge, in his treatment of his fellows, the judgment of the prince or of any officer upon another esquire, is subject to reprimand and, if necessary, dismissal. Complaints about a judgment must be addressed to the judge, not the one judged.
"Finally," Ornendil said, and lowered the letter to speak directly to his assembled brethren, "it has always been held that a captain is responsible for the failings of his men. Therefore, the masters and Captain Valandil have all recommended, and the Prince has endorsed the decision, that for failure to protect esquires and instructors who have come under our command, either within a particular area of study or generally, that Master Illian and myself be removed from our offices, effective immediately, and the choice of successors be given over to others."
At which pronouncement, a sort of dead, shocked silence settled over the company but Ornendil ignored it. He simply made Peloren and Elethil a bow, and said, "Gentlemen, I humbly beg your pardon." And while the esquires stared at him, slightly agape, he turned to the Prince, removing the chain of the Armsmaster's office from around his neck as he did so, and he presented it to Adrahil with a bow. The Prince received it, and Ornendil moved to stand with Illian, who had also stepped down from his place on the dais.
Not his place anymore, Peloren thought, feeling rather dazed. Beside him, Elethil was white-faced, and almost seemed to be shivering a bit, but there was no time yet to ask after his friend, for the Prince was speaking again.
"Not lightly do we lose captains who have served us as loyally and well as they knew how and for so long. But error exposes us all to loss, though it is our hope that what is lost through justice is regained in honor of a different sort." Adrahil beckoned then to Théorwyn who came to stand before him, as the Prince proclaimed: "Since the esquires needs must have an Armsmaster, for the time, Master Théorwyn shall serve as Armsmaster as well as Master of Horses, until we find one suitable to take up that office. The position of Master of Records shall likewise be filled for a time by Sir Tarondor."
To the dull buzz of urgent whispering, Tarondor, seeming quite as surprised as anyone else, obediently made his way forward and was quickly ushered into place upon the dais.
"This concludes our business for this day," Adrahil said, when all had fallen silent once more. "Think well upon what has passed here, and let us not suffer such injustice in our ranks henceforth. Dismissed."
There was a general clearing out, to the accompaniment of a babbling confusion of talk as shaken esquires and knights made their way from the halls to the duties that still lay ahead of them. Others, however, lingered.
"Pel! Elya!" Aldan, Teilin, and Ambor were making their way over to them, squeezing past the stream of bodies going in the opposite direction.
Peloren, however, did not answer them, but turned to Elethil, who still looked as if he were in shock. Laying hands on his shoulders, Peloren gave him a bit of a shake, and asked, "What is it, Elya?"
Elethil shook his head dazedly, but did not speak immediately. He folded his arms across his chest and hunched his shoulders a bit, seeming to try to collect himself. "Everything is changing," Elethil murmured.
"Well, aye—that is the point, and the good of it," Peloren said cautiously after a moment. Then: "What is changing?"
"Everything. I—" Elethil shook his head sharply, seeming to remember where he was. He straightened, ran a hand quickly over his face and then back through his hair. And: "It's all right. 'Tis only—it startled me."
"Elya," Peloren sighed, but got no further, for the others arrived then.
"Well done, lads!" Teilin exclaimed, and gave Elethil a clap on the back.
"Let us hope that's the end of trouble," Aldan said, grinning broadly.
"Aye," Peloren answered for both of them. And smiled. Aldan gave him a look then, and his eyes cut to Elethil. But ere he could ask:
"Peloren!" Peloren turned to see Master Théorwyn waving him over to join him, and Darmel, and a few other knights who served as assistants for him.
"Aye, sir… ah… " Peloren glanced swiftly back at his friends, at Elethil, torn, even as another voice called:
"All right, lads, you can speak later, but you're wanted elsewhere!" A sergeant was striding toward them, and behind him, toward the back of the hall, they could see Imrahil bidding Andrahar farewell for the time. The Heir paused on the threshold, though, waiting for his friends.
"Should we—?" Aldan asked, but somewhat to everyone's surprise, Elethil spoke up.
"Go ahead, or there will be no end of trouble today. I'll wait for Pel," he said. There was a moment's hesitation, but with the sergeant scowlingly advancing, and the promise that Elethil would be under watch, they made to depart.
"After supper," Aldan said, and Elethil nodded.
"Peloren," Théorwyn called again, and this time, Peloren quickly obeyed.
"Sorry, sir," he apologized, as he joined the others. Théorwyn made a quick, dismissive gesture.
"For the moment," the newly-minted Armsmaster said, "let us simply focus on the task at hand. Until Captain Valandil and the Prince have appointed someone to the place of Armsmaster, I will need each of you to take on a greater share of responsibility for the esquires' instruction in matters of horsemanship. Now…"
As Théorwyn spoke, Peloren tried to listen, for it seemed his part in assisting the Horse Master involved a more active role in training esquires, and not only those whose horsemanship was less than acceptable. But at a certain moment, he became aware of a distracting beat, a quiet step, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a blue-clad figure quietly making his way out of the hall…
Elethil! But he could not simply run after him, and he felt a surge of betrayed anger. For he knows I cannot. He was waiting for a chance to slip away! Valar! He blinked and forced himself to attend to Théorwyn's words, for surely this could not last so long. Surely…
Elethil did not precisely run, or walk, from the hall. He crept out, quiet, stiff-backed, and propelled by an urgency that set his stomach roiling. He needed OUT…
But no sooner had he slipped out the door and stepped over the threshold, than something moved in the corner of his eye, a blue-black blur. "So," said Andrahar, standing suddenly in his path. Elethil froze. The Southron cocked his head at him, raised a heavy brow.
"How did you—?" Elethil began, only to be cut short.
"Do you want to know?" Andrahar demanded, and when Elethil did not immediately answer, he shrugged, and concluded, "Then do not ask."
Elethil's mouth tightened at that, but before that dark-eyed and too-knowing gaze, there was nothing to be said—nothing, at least, that might not bring a reply as painful if not more so than the looks his friends gave him. The ones that told him too much of what they saw in him, and which truly, he had no wish to know, and so he simply crossed the corridor and leaned a shoulder heavily against the wall, folding his arms across his chest and staring down at the floor.
Andrahar, meanwhile, watched Elethil retreat, and sighed inwardly, frustrated and uncertain. Frustrated, for the lad bent like a wet reed, and what was anyone to do with such a one? Uncertain, for it was not as if he had desired this post, but Imrahil had been adamant.
"The masters will want us shortly," Imrahil had said, as he had embraced his friend at the back of the hall. "I cannot stay, but we must talk, and soon! After the lectures are over. But Andra," the Heir had said, and pulled away just slightly to glance furtively back up the length of the Great Hall, where Peloren and Elethil stood, "have an eye on them—on Elethil especially—'til we are free once more. Please?"
There was no way to refuse Imrahil, not when the matter so evidently troubled him—not when Elethil so evidently needed minding—and truth be told, it was hard to overlook the fact that he and Peloren and Elethil had seemed doomed to torment each other until just lately. So Andrahar had agreed, if not gladly, wondering the while what on earth he was supposed to do. They might have settled their grievances, but that hardly meant matters were easy or friendly between Peloren, Elethil, and himself, and especially between himself and Elethil. And I am no nurse-maid! he had thought. Nor a healer—what have I to do with minding someone running from his own thoughts?
But the need was there, and if Peloren could not keep watch on Elethil, then it was up to him, apparently, and so when Théorwyn had called Peloren over, he had preceded Aldan, Teilin, and Ambor out, and settled in to wait, just in case.
It seemed he had been wise to do so, too, though as he stared at Elethil, he was struck once more by an unwelcome sense of impotence: What am I to do now? He supposed it was enough simply to keep Elethil in view, 'til Peloren came to relieve him of his charge. Not that he particularly wanted to watch someone fall apart, but at least Elethil seemed disinclined either to talk or to act. Despite a certain discomfort, that suited Andrahar well enough, and so he composed himself to the patient doing of duty.
Time crawled by while the two of them stood there, one against either side of the corridor, Andrahar impassively watching Elethil, Elethil carefully not looking at him, though clearly he felt Andrahar's gaze. For he was restless in his avoidance, looking here and there, shifting his weight from time to time, while hands sought occupation in idle or curious caress of self and stone.
Once, when Andrahar had been a boy in his father's house, he had got hold of one of his mother's hairpins and had set upon a toy his half-brothers had liked to use to scare their sisters with. It was nothing but a little tin box, brightly painted, and with a circular groove on one side so that one of the decorative panels could be turned within it. At a certain point, a snake's head would leap out, and his half-brothers delighted to set it at just that point so that the slightest movement would cause the snake to emerge, much to their sisters' terror.
Andrahar had not had overmuch concern for his half-sisters' shrieks, given that they had never had anything to say to him. But he had been curious about the box, and so he had spent a furtive hour dismantling and repairing it, and had discovered in the process that the thing worked with tightly coiled wire that was wound by turning the panel in its groove.
Now he watched a wire of a different sort twist within his erstwhile enemy, and wondered when the outburst should come, propelled by the unbearable, and he felt a stirring of unease. For who knows what shall come out? he thought.
Perhaps that uneasiness left some trace upon his face or posture, communicating itself somehow across the gap. For Elethil glanced up suddenly and gave him a quick, sharp, and sharply ambivalent, look, ere swiftly looking away once more. At length, he spoke in a low voice, saying, "You need not fear. Or stay. Though no one believe it, I shall not go anywhere."
"Then where were you going just now?" Andrahar countered, and got an exasperated sigh.
"Not that sort of—" Elethil bit off the caustic correction, in favor of a more sullen, weary, "You know what I mean. You especially ought to know."
A shrug. "You are of the Haradrim," Elethil said simply, and his tone was such as to make it no judgment, but merely the assertion of a bare, brute fact.
Nevertheless, given that it came from one with whom Andrahar was but lately reconciled, it needed a moment for him to swallow the acid retort that rose automatically to mind, and to collect himself enough to reply, in as neutral a voice as he could manage, "I am. But you are not. And you will forgive me if I say your performance thus far this term does not lead me to think you know overmuch of Haradrim where such things matter. And I do not know everything of how Gondorrim think, either, especially on the topic of… 'going somewhere.' It does not happen so very often here, after all."
Elethil stared at him a long, painful moment, and then his face fell in a grimace that seemed to turn in on itself—a clench and a wince, and then a sigh as Elethil closed his eyes and leaned his head against the cool of the wall's stone. And: "You’ll get no example from me. There is no need to hover."
"Your look might say otherwise," Andrahar replied, by way of refusing the suggestion.
"What matters it to you?" Elethil snapped suddenly. "I thought your people found some honor in it anyway!"
"They do, but show me wherein it serves your honor or anyone else’s if you were to slay yourself now," Andrahar retorted, and stepped down hard on the impulse to say more than that. For in the end, this was clearly not about Harad or Haradrim, and so he did his best to let go the offensiveness of the suggestion that somehow Haradrim, in finding honor in the act of suicide, cared not at all or did not grieve the loss, or did not discriminate between a right and a wrong way to go about the matter.
But to Andrahar’s disappointment, though not entirely to his surprise, Elethil did not take him up on the challenge. Rather, that brief flash of anger bled away, and with it went any trace of spirit that he had shown.
"There never was any honor in it," he answered dully.
Andrahar shook his head, frustrated. "And that is where you are wrong," he found himself saying. And when Elethil gave him a startled, uncomprehending look, he continued heatedly, "As much as there was in your disappearance to rue, there was this good in it: that you finally said ‘Enough!’ and stood by it. You are an esquire, Elethil—you will be a Swan Knight. Have pride enough to honor that!"
But in the charged silence following this outburst, Elethil said quietly, "Swan Knights do not wish to kill themselves."
Andrahar snorted. Gondorians! "Every man born a warrior has it in him to wish his own death. That is why there are lords and oaths," he argued. "To give that desire over to others, who can render him useful and profitable, so that he dies for others at their command, and not for himself. It is only when his lord has failed and been destroyed that he takes back the choice to himself, and if it is true that the Dark Lord shall come for us one day and overwhelm us, then you will see how many Swan Knights do not fling themselves to death in enemy arms when they might have saved themselves or given themselves over to others. But they will still be Swan Knights."
He gave Elethil a sharp look. "The Prince did right by you today; you have an honorable lord to command you, you have brothers to keep you—‘tis what you said you wanted when you chose to return. Take it, therefore, if you have the heart!"
A lengthy silence followed this outburst, in which two things occurred to Andrahar. Firstly, that perhaps this was not the sort of thing Elethil ought to hear, and secondly, hard upon the heels of that thought, that he might very well not care. After all, lacking Imrahil’s innate good sense of how to right one so undone, what should he have said? The comforting lie had never sat well with him, and he was not very adept at it anyway.
He was, perhaps fortunately, spared the need to discover how Elethil might react, for at that very moment, the doors flew open and Peloren came to an abrupt halt upon seeing them there. Relief washed over his face, and Elethil, seeing that, sighed. Ere Peloren could so much as open his mouth to speak, he said:
"I just stepped out for minute, Pel."
"I can see that," Peloren replied after a beat. Andrahar, who, if he were not very good at holding someone’s hand, had certainly developed a good sense for a tactical withdrawal, decided that now was the time for one. He pushed himself away from the wall and straightened, grimacing a bit when his back cracked.
"I shall bid you a good afternoon, gentlemen. See you on the lists." With that, he turned and made his way down the hall, but behind him, he heard Peloren ask softly:
"What was that about?"
And Elethil replied: "Nothing. We were only talking."
‘Only talking.’ Andrahar pulled his cloak closer about himself, mentally cursing the sling that hampered him as he went in search of something to do with himself for the next few hours. 'Only talking.' I suppose we shall know soon enough!
The afternoon was wearing on towards evening when Ornendil, who was carefully sorting little sheaves of paper into desk drawers, was interrupted in his task by a knock upon the door of his office. He looked up—he had left the door open—and saw an esquire hovering on the threshold.
"Ah," he said, setting the papers aside. "Celdir, come in, please. Take a seat," he told the lad, and watched as the young man did so, Celdir's eyes cutting to the clutter of the room. Ornendil had a couple of chests set open in the middle of the floor, and one of the chairs was occupied by a stack of older folios he had yet to sort through. Some might have called this 'ostentatious'; Ornendil preferred not to argue such terms.
Instead he settled back into his own chair and regarded the esquire, who, well-trained son of a lord that he was, gazed back with just that proper touch of deference demanded by the difference of rank, if not of birth. Ornendil had to give the lad a certain amount of credit for poise, since he had to be wondering about Ornendil's intentions, and how much Torlas might have said, Torlas having been by earlier that afternoon, at Ornendil's command.
"Do you know why you are here?" he asked at length.
"You sent for me, sir," came the prompt reply. Ornendil smiled thinly, and nodded, conceding the first point.
"I did. Do you know why?"
"No, sir, I was told only to come to the Armsmaster's office. I assume, though," Celdir volunteered, "that it has something to do with the questions of the past few days."
"It does indeed. And also with this afternoon's gathering," Ornendil replied, and paused a moment, letting his gaze sweep over the lad. Celdir said nothing and sat very still, and the former Armsmaster wondered what passed through his mind. Not what I should wish, I fear, he thought, and banished curiosity. It was not, after all, needed for this chore, his final act before leaving office. And so rather than draw out the preliminaries, he moved straight to the point.
"In the course of our inquiries, which went well beyond your peers, I might add, we have heard quite a bit about you and Andrahar and Peloren and Elethil. Some of it we knew of before, but had not the will to make of it what it deserved, I fear," Ornendil said, letting a rather chill and steely note enter his tone. "In the future, that shall not be the case. Master Théorwyn has heard all our findings, so know this now: you are watched. You will be watched, and the first time you should step out of line where one of your fellows is concerned, you will be sent home.
"Indeed," he warned, "the only reason you are not being sent home now is that your friend Torlas insists he acted alone in crafting that bit of… 'mischief'… that began our investigation. That, and that we acknowledge our own fault in allowing you to go so far without being checked much earlier than today. So consider this fair warning, Celdir: 'tis time you looked with more respect upon your fellows, whatever their origins, whatever their errors, and left your betters to deal out the judgment that is their right and duty. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Celdir replied, to all appearances unmoved. Ornendil, however, noted the slightest tightening of the other's jaw, and smiled once more thinly.
"Good. For an esquire may be sent home to a profitable career in arms in some noble court. A knight, however, who is expelled… he usually finds it harder to find a place in a lord's retinue." And he held Celdir's eye a moment. Then: "You may go, Celdir. A good evening to you."
Celdir rose then, and stood a moment before his desk, seeming to hesitate just slightly. But then he bowed and without another word, made his way out. Ornendil sat in his chair and listened to the other's retreating footsteps before he sighed softly, and set himself once more to culling papers and organizing them for his successor.
Time passed; the bells in the watch tower tolled the end of the day, and there was a brief flurry of young voices, accompanied by the scuff and patter of booted feet as esquires left their quarters for the dining commons and supper. Ornendil ignored this and continued in his task awhile longer, until another set of footsteps could be heard drawing nigh. And when they paused just beyond his office, and a shadow fell across the door, Ornendil looked up to find Illian leaning on the doorframe.
"Illian," he greeted the other, waving him within.
"I thought I would come and see your progress," Illian replied, shoving away from the door to wander closer, and a slight smile touched his lips as he cocked a hip to perch upon the edge of the Armsmaster's desk. "I must say, Ornendil, I may have more papers, but you are by far the worse of us when it comes to finding any of them!"
"I have just finished," Ornendil informed his colleague, letting pass the comment upon his filing.
"I should hope so," Illian retorted, taking up a few papers in the last stack still upon the desk and rifling through them briefly. "How did it go with Celdir?"
"I should say he understands how matters stand," Ornendil answered. "We shall see whether he respects that understanding enough to change his ways."
"I imagine he will, especially if he can no longer rely on one of 'his' lads to help him along," Illian replied. "I saw Torlas on his way out of the prince's study. He looked pale as milk!"
Ornendil grunted at that. "How was the meeting with Harthil?" he asked. For Illian and Adrahil had agreed last night jointly to confront Harthil—not so much because Adrahil had any need of Illian's presence, but Illian had felt it was a duty owed too many times over for him not to be there.
"He shall not trouble us or the esquires further," Illian said simply, and when Ornendil raised a brow, explained: "He'll not teach again. Adrahil is sending him to the Prince's household in Minas Tirith, into Aerandir's care, to assist our men and the Steward's agents in their analyses of the Easterling threat."
In other words, a post far from nearly all esquires, from the enemy Harthil knew best, and under the watchful eyes of Adrahil's well-loved half-brother and staff. "Keeping him close, I take it?" Ornendil said after a moment.
"In a manner of speaking, aye," Illian replied. The former Master of Records returned his handful of papers to their proper place and neatened the stack. "He knows he shall be watched. 'Tis not as if he does not know the rules of such games."
For a time, the two of them were silent, reflecting, perhaps, on the upheaval of the day. But at length, Illian sighed and stretched, and then he leaned over and gave Ornendil a light cuff to the arm.
"Come," he said briskly. "If you are finished, then have well done with it. I came to see if you would join me for a drink, but since your wife should have words for both of us if I delivered you home drunk, I shall settle for supper. We're not needed in the hall tonight, that is certain!"
"In truth, I'd welcome the distraction," Ornendil replied, rising. He carefully scooped the stack of papers up and set them within the bottom-most drawer of his desk and pushed it in. Then, straightening: "Are you buying?"
Illian snorted and slid off the desk. "We'll draw for it after supper—as usual."
"Fair enough. Have you anywhere in mind?"
"Well, given the events of the day, I thought the Southern Sun might be appropriate," Illian replied, naming one of the Haradric taverns not too far down in the city.
"It will certainly bring me appropriately to tears," Ornendil replied dryly, having discovered many years ago that Haradric cuisine was a little beyond his abilities to stomach easily, unless he were careful with it. But he nodded and clapped Illian upon the back as he grabbed his cloak from its hook. Ushering Illian out of the office, he shut it behind them and paused a moment. "Last time," he sighed.
Illian grunted, but then laid a hand on his shoulder and inquired, "Shall we?"
"Aye, let's be off," Ornendil replied, shaking himself a bit. He fell in with Illian, drawing his cloak about his shoulders as he went, though he did glance back once at the Fledglings' Wing. Fifteen years, he thought, feeling unmoored, like a ship without an anchor.
But only for a moment, before he firmly set loss to one side. Things changed in the wide world—they had built their hopes on that. Now 'twas time to let the wager stand and see what could be made of it, though others lead the way.
More wise be they than we!
And while two captains, formerly masters, sat in a tavern and, despite Illian's best intentions, got slowly drunk, in the keep of Dol Amroth, two esquires sought out companions, in two little rooms on opposite sides of the castle…
Peloren had not meant to be so long away, but despite the fact that Aldan, Teilin, and Ambor were due on the lists the next day at the usual early hour, and so subject to curfew, to say nothing of the wisdom of temperance, they had wanted to celebrate somewhat after supper. The sticking point had been Elethil, who had insisted—politely, but firmly—that he wished to stay in, although he had been quick to encourage Peloren to go out with their friends for a time. Worse, he had had an accomplice.
"Go on, Pel," Imrahil had urged. "You should celebrate. I, on the other hand, probably should stay close for a time after last Friday. No sense in rousing paternal wrath twice in less than a week!"
"But—" Peloren had protested.
"Go, Pel," Elethil had said, and given him a bit of a smile. "'Twill be all right: you'll be out with Aldan and Ambor and Teilin, and I'll be with Imrahil here."
Argument had foundered in the face of such tidy arrangements, but despite enjoying the company of friends, Peloren had been glad to return. Now he stalked down the hall towards Elethil's door, and he felt the grating of the case tucked into his belt at his hip as he walked.
Finally, he reached Elethil's room, and paused a moment, listening for the low murmur of voices. He heard none, and feeling a bit anxious, raised his hand and knocked. "Elya?"
For a short while, there was no response. But then, just as he was about to knock again, the door opened, and there stood Elethil—alone, and apparently none the worse for it.
"Pel," his friend greeted him, and stood aside. "Come in."
In Harad, everything had its proper order, its proper place or time. Therefore Andrahar struck a match and lit the four candles on their stand, starting with the one closest to him on the right, then moving to the one behind it, then to the candle in the front on the left, and ending with the one behind it ere he shook the match out. The incense stick he simply touched to one of the candles and set it in its little sand dish. The heavy scent mingled with the heat of the candles and stole swiftly about the room as he settled himself tailor style before them, leaning an elbow upon his knees. It was not the pious posture tradition prescribed, but then again, it had been some time since he had prayed and he did not do so now.
That was, perhaps, a good thing, for mere moments later, it seemed, someone knocked upon his door. For a moment, Andrahar hesitated—would it be better to pretend he was not in, or to send whoever it was away? But then:
"Andra?" Imrahil called. Andrahar sighed, hesitated one moment more, then called in return:
"Come in, Imri."
Peloren had been swift to obey the summons, and now he stood watching as Elethil crossed to his bed and picked up the book that had been laid face down there. He took it up, one finger between the pages to mark his place, then moved to the desk, where he rooted about in a drawer. Eventually, he found a scrap of paper to replace his finger ere he set the book down.
"How was it with the others?" he asked.
"Quiet enough. What we all needed, I think," Peloren replied. Then: "We missed you."
Elethil smiled a little at that, but said only: "What is that?"
Peloren drew the case from his belt and held it out to Elethil, who received it, and as understanding dawned upon his face, said, "Merry Yule, Elya."
Imrahil entered, shut the door, and then stopped short at the unusual sight of his friend before a lit altar. Grey eyes widened, and then his manner grew hesitant. "I'm sorry," he said, contritely, "I did not think I should be interrupting—"
Andrahar waved the apology aside. "Were you interrupting, I would not have answered," he assured him.
"Oh. Well, I am glad of that." Imrahil moved to join him, though he settled a respectable distance from the altar, sitting against the wall so Andrahar could see him, but also careful to avoid intruding on sacred spaces, that he not give any impression that he was a supplicant before the Fire.
However, as he drew his knees up to his chest, he cocked his head at Andrahar and asked, "But if I'm not interrupting, then what are you doing, if you do not mind my asking?"
Elethil set the case aside, turning the pipe in his hands, and he gave it a quick try, once up and down the scale.
"Do you like it?" Peloren asked.
Elethil did not answer that question immediately, though he did run his fingers once more over the stops, seeming to appreciate the sensuous feel of wood and rim and varnish. "Did you come over just to give me this?" he asked, glancing up at Peloren, who fidgeted slightly.
"Not only to give it to you," he admitted.
What was he doing? Andrahar wished he had some good and ready answer, but he did not. He knew only what he was not doing, and that was praying.
There had been a time when he had prayed daily, when he had lived in his father's house, where such rites were carefully adhered to as befitted a great lord. He himself had scarcely thought overmuch of it, being a boy swept up in the routine of the household.
He had also kept his mother's heretical devotions with her—to please her, and his father also, who had indulged her as his favorite and thought it fitting that Ariyë's son should share in her rites. As bare as they were, he had found them lacking by comparison to the more elaborate practices the rest of the household kept, though he had dutifully learned the prayer-poems of the Order of the Blue, Bakshir's most notorious (and tenacious) sect. They were not, after all, unlovely. And in their dignity without ritual, they had got him through those nights—four years of them—when it had hurt too much to dare to let words die wholly away, lest the full horror of his plight burst the bonds words set upon it and sweep him all away, like a bird in a sandstorm.
He did not know at what point belief had deserted him, or if he had ever really had it, but since his arrival in his strange new land, he had not prayed, save in the earliest days and perhaps a few times in a year when it occurred to him that in Harad some particularly holy day was being observed. Then he might try, but something had always been lacking and he would fall untroubled out of practice once more. The journey to Harad with Thorongil had returned him to the habit of daily observance as a part of blending in with others, but it had not lasted once he had left the South.
So what was he doing tonight?
"I do not know."
"I did not think so," Elethil replied. And he gestured to the chair, then, inviting Peloren to sit, while he sank down onto the edge of his bed.
"I'm sorry, Elya, 'tis simply—" Peloren spread his hands, helplessly.
"I know," Elethil interrupted. "You thought I would be leaving." A pause, then Elethil raised his eyes to Peloren. "What if I were?"
At which Peloren felt his heart begin to speed. "What do you mean?" he demanded.
"I came from Elethil's room," Imrahil told him after a time.
Elethil. Andrahar leaned his head in his free hand, pressing at his temples a moment, ere he asked, "How did he seem to you?"
"Sad. But not as withdrawn. 'Tis hard to describe," Imrahil replied. And in the candle-lit darkness, his eyes glinted, as he peered closely at his friend and said, "We talked for a time—Elethil said you two spoke this afternoon. He had a number of questions about Haradric customs, and some of them things I do not know that I could ever answer."
"Did he?" Andrahar murmured.
"What did you say to him, Andra?" Imrahil asked, curious. Andrahar considered this question, and the answers that came to mind, mentally trying and rejecting several before he finally said, simply:
"I told him what I thought."
"What do you mean, leaving?" Peloren demanded, when Elethil did not immediately respond. "Elya?"
"I mean," Elethil said, drawing a deep breath, "what if I were not suited to be a Swan Knight?"
"Why would you say that? Why would you think that?" Peloren asked, and then stopped, thinking back to that afternoon. "Is this about something Andrahar said?" he demanded, suspicious. And if it is, I do not care what or who he is, we shall have words!
But Elethil shook his head. "'Tis not his fault. It is just that a few things came clear to me, after we talked, that is all."
"What came clear?" Peloren asked, and watched as Elethil bowed his head, staring at the floor between his knees for a time, ere he sighed once more, running a hand through his hair and over his neck, ere he rose restlessly to his feet again.
"Things are changing," he said at last, repeating the words that had so puzzled Peloren that afternoon. "And it is good they are—Prince Adrahil and the masters—well, Théorwyn and whoever they choose for Armsmaster and Master of Records—they will make something better out of all of this than has been, I think. But I thought… I came to understand something." He paused a moment, paced a little one way and then the other, 'til Peloren asked:
"What was it?"
Elethil paused and stood there, head bowed, one hand wringing the other. Then he looked up, looked Peloren full in the face as he said:
"I do not want everything to change."
"Do you believe the measures your father has taken will make a difference?"
"Mm?" Imrahil, who had been pondering Andrahar's reply, shook himself, then quickly shrugged. "'Tis hard to say. I hope so, for everyone's sake."
"So do I," Andrahar replied, staring at the smoke rising above the little tongues of candlelight. Light blazed and it died, blazed and died, just as the sun rose and set each day forever—so the Haradrim held. Nothing truly new entered the world, but the world turned and as it did, souls struggled to make their way through it to the wisdom allotted them, that they might be worthy to rest in it at the end of their days. One had to find wisdom first, though, a tricky, painful task without guarantee, and some days, Andrahar wondered whether it lay in no longer looking…
"Andra?" Imrahil's voice pierced reflection, and he blinked the bright afterglow from his eyes as he glanced over at his friend. Imrahil was looking at him with that earnest, anxious expression that Andrahar knew too well presaged an apology. Sure enough: "We never did get to talk the other night, before everything slid into the sea, as it were. But I wanted to say, I truly did not mean to put you in so—low a place when I asked you what passed between you and Elethil and Peloren."
Andrahar grimaced slightly. "I know you did not," he replied, pausing a moment, debating whether he ought to explain, or what to say. Eventually, though, he simply shook his head. "Forget it, Imri. You may not have intended any insult, but I did that night—'tis I who owe an apology, not you. And you have it—whatever will amend the wrong, you have only to command it."
Peloren stared at his friend, confused. "I do not understand," he said at length, brow furrowing. For surely change was what they had desired, even if they had hardly dared hope for it! "Elya, you cannot want matters to go on as they had!"
"No. It's not quite that way. I—'tis good, what Prince Adrahil did today," Elethil said, insistently. "But it felt terrible, like a fist round my chest—like I could not breathe, Pel."
Peloren frowned. "But why?"
"Because," Elethil replied, lowering his eyes. "I think I had been hoping… if nothing changed…" He stopped, though hands still moved, seeming to seek a way past the silence in their urgent, eloquent gesturing. Peloren had forcibly to still the impulse to press him then, sensing that his friend was trying to explain, and sensing, too, that to speak now might upset that effort, might undo whatever it was in him that struggled so against the hard habit of silence. "If nothing changed, then… then if I chose not to continue or to leave, no one would question the choice." He paused, and then all of a sudden blurted out, "Especially not me."
"But Elya," Peloren protested softly, "you have wanted this so…"
At that, Elethil drew a deep breath and he raised his eyes once more to fix them upon Peloren's face. "Well, that is the thing about longing, isn't it?" he said. "There is always some price for it—like Beren and Lúthien. I do want to be a Swan Knight, Pel, it's not that I don't, but I don't know… it's not only things that have to change, we have to, and… I don't know if I can." He laughed a little, suddenly. "You see?" he said, unhappily, once more looking away, and he sank down wearily again to sit upon his bed. "Coward after all!"
Peloren was silent for a long moment, turning this confession over in his mind, running it this way and that. At last, though, he leaned forward and took one of Elethil's hands in his, and pressed firmly. "You know," he said quietly, "that if you leave so late, the Prince will want to know why."
"Are you sure about this, Elya?"
"Yes. And no. I don't know!"
"What will you do?" Peloren asked.
Elethil shrugged heavily. "'Tis hard to say. Or no, I mean…" He paused to breathe again, and he grew very still of a sudden. "I think I know the way. But how to do it…?" After a moment, he glanced up and gave Peloren a slight, sad smile. "I shall have to wait for a time, I think. Wait, and hope for courage!"
"I have only to command you, do I?" Imrahil said, and chortled of a sudden. "You should be warier in your oaths, Andra!" the Heir exclaimed fondly.
Imrahil nodded sagely. "After all," he said, leaning forward to whisper in a conspiratorial voice, "I might take unscrupulous advantage!"
At that, Andrahar sighed. "All right," he conceded, "I deserved that!"
"You truly did," Imrahil replied, but smiled broadly, affection and mirth gleaming in grey eyes. And he scrambled to his feet then, holding out a hand. "Come on! You might as well give up—you know you cannot sit like that for very much longer, and there is nothing to hold you here."
Which was true, but Andrahar hesitated. For despite the death of whatever pious feeling he might once have possessed, there remained still the vague conviction that he was yet claimed by cradle creeds in a way that only time would reveal. And in Harad, one never left a lit altar without a prayer…
So he said one, in honor of them all—Peloren, Elethil, Imrahil, himself, everyone and the filth they had lived with for a long two years and mayhap more—and finished it out, as was tradition: "Bless us, that we may come here no more!" And he blew out the candles.
As he took Imrahil's hand, and let his friend help pull him to his feet, the other smiled again, and draped an arm about his shoulders, and said, "It will turn out well, Andra. You'll see!"
In response, Andrahar shook his head, but slipped his good arm about Imrahil's waist, daring to press him close just a moment, ere he released him. And:
"Aye, I suppose we shall," he replied.
Author's Notes: I was hoping I could get the Andra-Imri, Pel-Elya exchanges at the end to be centered differently. Mike helpfully suggested some code, but it didn't quite do what I thought it would. Ah well! Hopefully the formatting works well enough, even without the envsioned indenting.