The inhabitants of Hostler Road in Pelargir were a hard-working lot, and far enough off the main thoroughfares that nothing much of interest ever came into their small neighborhood. So when the troop of beautiful warhorses ridden by warriors clad in Dol Amroth livery turned up their cobbled lane, all meaningful attempts at work ceased. Dogs barked, children shrieked and dashed up and down the road, tradesmen and their wives leaned over their doors or out their windows and gaped, or gathered in feverishly gossiping clusters upon their stoops.
The troop halted in the road before Jacyn Carter’s house. There were a dozen of them, all dazzling in their highly polished armor. But it was the two lords whom the troop escorted who were the focus of all eyes, and who would be the fodder for gossip for months to come.
It was impossible that the older man be in Hostler Street, and equally impossible not to know who he was. Only one man in Gondor wore the Swanship arms of Dol Amroth differenced with a crown to match the circlet that confined his raven locks.
“’Tis the Prince!” “’Tis Imrahil himself!” “And young Brand!” the murmurs came. The inhabitants of Hostler Street remembered the previous year, when the formerly despised bastard had visited his mother in lordly style. Then he had been accompanied by the swarthy captain with parti-colored hair who walked beside the Prince. The white-haired young man carrying the huge hamper was a new addition.
“A Captain of the Swan Knights last year, the Prince of Dol Amroth this year,” said Darulan, the street’s resident blacksmith. “Who will the boy bring home with him next year? The Steward? The King himself?”
“Come up a bit in the world, hasn’t he?” Torin the saddler commented. “Who would have thought of it?”
Jacyn Carter was a hard man in a hard trade, and he plied that trade in an old and decadent city. Consequently, he backed down from very little-even Captain Andrahar, who effortlessly intimidated many a hard man. But tea on silver plates, laid on fine white cloths covering his humble kitchen table was apparently enough to cow him-when the man presiding at the head of that table was the supreme lord in Western Gondor.
Brand watched in fascination as his step-father, his usual truculence gone, stared wide-eyed at Prince Imrahil, who was dripping what seemed to be an endless stream of honey into his cup. Jacyn was sitting at the opposite end of the table, with Nellith at his right hand, while Brand was situated at the Prince’s right hand. Captain Andrahar and Hethlin stood on alert and on guard at Imrahil’s back. Andrahar’s expression was imperturbable, but there was interest in Hethlin’s manner and an amused twinkle in her eyes, though she kept those eyes properly forward. Her inclusion in this visit had been by her request-she had been very curious about Brand’s family. The Commander’s inclusion had been by the Prince’s insistence-Brand had inadvertently overheard just a bit of that argument, while walking by the door of the Prince’s suite in the old King‘s House in Pelargir. Andrahar had pleaded much undone business of procurement and had suggested Liahan as an escort, but had been overruled.
“You are the one who took responsibility for their son, Andra, and you are coming.”
“Brand is more in your care than mine now, my lord. Yours and Elphir’s.” Brand had sucked in a breath at that, feeling a now-familiar ache beneath his breastbone.
The Prince’s voice had been firm. “You are coming, and that is all there is to it. I will hear no more about the matter, Andra.”
“As my lord commands.”
The acquiescence had been made grudgingly, but once made, there had been no further protests. Brandmir wondered if this wasn’t his great-uncle’s rather oblique way of throwing the two of them together-Andrahar had certainly managed to successfully avoid his ward all the way to Pelargir. But if that were the Prince‘s strategy, Brand didn’t see what good it would do-while on bodyguard detail, Andrahar was not at liberty to talk to him. Imrahil was not admitting to anything of the sort in any event. Gracious as ever, he presided over the table in the humble abode as if he were in the main hall of Dol Amroth.
“Do have some of the honey-cakes, they’re very good,” the Prince said, giving the master and mistress of the house his most charming smile. Nellith, like most women, proved susceptible to that smile, and smiling in her turn a little nervously, helped herself to some of the delicacies gracing the table. Jacyn filled his plate as well, though he still regarded Imrahil fearfully, almost as if he expected him to draw sword and pounce. “I apologize for imposing upon you in this way, but Brandmir wanted to see his mother and brothers and sisters, and as we were on our way to Minas Tirith, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Besides,” and here his eyes flicked, momentarily frosty, over the carter, “I have heard so much about the two of you that I feel I know you already.”
Nellith blushed at the idea of the Prince knowing her at all, but Jacyn caught that moment of disapproval, and his eyes moved accusingly in their turn to Brand, who met his fulminating glance coolly. Think you that I was the sole bearer of tales, Step-father? Andrahar talked to Morlan, and for all I know, others. Not to mention that the tale of your treatment was writ plain on my face when he met me. And when he finally did tell the Prince about me, he told him everything he knew. His eyes held his step-father’s, held them without the insolent defiance he had used to give the man. Held them with what was, unbeknownst to him, his father’s look of confident command until Jacyn, discomfited, bowed his head over his teacup once more.
Imrahil missed nothing of this and a hint of irony seeped into his smile. “Also,” he continued pleasantly, “we have some news for you. Brand would have written it, but given that we were on our way here anyway, there was little time lost in simply waiting to tell you in person.” He set down his tea cup and folded his hands, and his manner and expression sobered. Jacyn and Nellith noted this and became very attentive.
“As you know,” the Prince said, “Lord Boromir never wed. As far as we know, Brandmir is Lord Boromir’s only child, acknowledged or otherwise. Myself, Prince Faramir and the King were all in agreement that because of this he should have some sort of status and position. After much discussion, Prince Faramir decided that the most appropriate thing to do would be to give Brandmir the dower lands that had come to him by way of his father’s marriage with my late sister Finduilas. The lands are rich and extensive, and the grant is of great enough size that Brandmir would be entitled to a Council seat under our old laws, though the King has final say in such appointments now. Elessar did, however, permit the transfer of the lands, and he has also issued Brandmir a patent of nobility, to give him sufficient status.”
Brand’s mother gasped, wide-eyed, and his step-father looked as if one of his platter-hoofed dray horses had kicked him between the eyes.
“My lord prince…” Nellith said hesitantly, “are you saying that my son is a lord now?”
Imrahil nodded. “That is exactly what I am saying.” In the silence that followed, the sound of Brand’s siblings quarreling over cakes upstairs, under the watchful eye of an older neighbor girl, could be clearly heard.
The carter’s wife took another moment to absorb this, then smiled feebly at Andrahar over the Prince’s right shoulder. “You did well indeed by my son, captain.”
Andrahar shrugged. “’Twas little enough of my doing, mistress. All I did was take him to Dol Amroth and tell his tale to the Prince when he returned home.”
“And take good care of me until the Prince did come home,” Brand put in firmly.
There was a moment’s silence, then Andrahar’s deep voice responded from behind his back.
“You are kind to say so, Lord Brandmir.” The captain’s tone was cool and formal as at court. Brand bent his head over his cup for a moment, then looked up to meet his mother’s eyes. Nellith looked both puzzled and concerned.
“There is more, Mother,” he said. The Prince handed him a very official-looking document, which he reached down to his mother-the table was not so very long after all.
Nellith took it and her look of concern deepened. “You know that I have no letters, Brand.”
“’Tis nothing bad, Mother!” he hastened to explain. “It’s the deed to a farm, a very fine one, a hundred acres. Mostly good pasture land. On my lands in Belfalas. It’s yours, if you want it. Yours and Step-father’s.”
“A farm? In Belfalas?”
“Yes. I would like you to live closer to me, so I can see you and my brothers and sisters more often. Did you not always use to say that you missed the farm?”
Nellith nodded, her fingers stroking the parchment. “Aye, I did that.” She looked at her husband, handing the parchment to him. Jacyn, who was also unlettered, examined the letters and seals with a slight frown.
Brand, seeing his expression, quickly added, “You needn’t move there unless you want to-I know that Step-father likes the city. But I wanted you to share in my good fortune.”
“Your mother has been saving up most of that money you’ve been sending her,” the carter said. “We were about to buy the house next door and knock a door through. I am a carter, not a farmer. What would I do in Belfalas?”
“The same thing you do in Pelargir,” the Prince said. “We have need of carters there. Honest, reliable ones are always in demand. You would not lack for work. I have contracts available myself.”
“I could work for you?”
Jacyn found the courage to look him in the eye for a moment, glanced at his wife, let his gaze travel to Brand, then turned his attention back to Imrahil.
“My lord prince, have I your leave to speak with Lord Brandmir alone for a moment?”
The Prince inclined his head in acquiescence. “I have no objection if Brandmir does not.”
“Of course,” Brand replied and got to his feet. Jacyn bowed deeply to the Prince. As the two of them headed out the back door, Brand heard Imrahil say calmly, “Bide, Andra,” and knew that his guardian had attempted to follow. He smiled to himself, heartened as he had not been in days. Andrahar was undoubtedly worried that the carter might fall into his old habits, but Brand was not the least bit concerned. Jacyn Carter was many things, but a fool was not one of them. He would not dare to lay a hand upon Brand given his new status and the company he was keeping.
The alley behind the house had not changed in the last two years. There was still a distinct odor of horse and ancient and not particularly efficient drains. Brand could see a massive head poke curiously out of the first stall in the small barn and reflected upon the fact that Jacyn might have packed his children in five to a room, but he’d always given his teams box stalls, which was hardly the usual thing among carters.
“So-is it to be my lord this and my lord that now?” the carter asked him in an annoyed tone, spinning on his heel to face Brand once they were outside.
“Not when we’re alone like this. But you’d better believe the Prince will insist upon it in other company, Step-father.”
“And do you think that I can’t take care of my own family?”
“I know that you can take care of your family. I never went hungry, and there were always clothes on my back, and you didn’t care for me in the least. But I’ve been very, very lucky and fallen into a very good place. What sort of man doesn’t share that with his kin?”
“There are plenty who would have just walked away and not looked back.”
“I was raised better than that.”
“You’ve not so much love of me that you would want to be doing me favors.”
“No, I don’t,” Brand admitted easily. “But that is my mother in there, and my half-brothers and sisters. I don’t forget that.” He grinned, with a touch of his old insolence. “You’re just along for the ride.”
Oddly, that admission seemed to reassure the carter. He snorted, “That’s honest enough, at least,” and surveyed his stepson curiously. “You’ve changed, and I don’t just mean the clothes. What are they teaching you at that place?”
Brand smiled in rueful reminiscence. “Oh, reading, writing, sums, languages. Horseback riding, sword-play, archery, dancing, courtly manners. Things like that. I‘ve hardly time to turn about most days.”
After a bemused moment spent contemplating Brand’s schedule, the carter asked, “Do you still want to be a soldier then? Now that you’re a lord?”
“I hope to. I shall try at least, when the time comes. I can’t become an esquire until I’m sixteen. But I need to be able to protect my people.” He stopped speaking, stricken abruptly by the realization that he actually had people to protect.
Jacyn, seeing his expression, hooked his broad-backed hands into his belt. “Glad you’re not a tanner’s apprentice?” The question was dryly put.
“Oh yes!” came the instant, fervent reply.
The carter sucked in a breath and looked embarrassed for a moment. “About that business with the tanner…That wasn’t all spite, Brand. A bit of it was, to be truthful, and rather more of it was about the money. But if little Jacyn had been old enough, I’d have thought hard about sending him-the place was that good.”
“Mother thought it a good place as well, sir. I don’t hold it against you.”
“That’s good of you,” Jacyn said with some reluctance. Then, more briskly-“Now-back to business. If we decide to move to this farm of yours, will I have to swear to you for the land?”
Brand blinked. This was something he hadn’t considered or discussed with his great-uncle. “I don’t know. Grandy didn’t say. I wouldn’t make you, but he might.”
“Oh. Right familiar you’ve gotten with him, haven’t you?”
“Of course, seeing as he’s my great-uncle.”
“I‘m still not used to that.” The carter looked down at his feet for a moment, then back up at Brand. “Your mother lives for your letters, you know. She really wishes she had lettering, so she could write you back.”
Brand nodded. “I do miss her. That is why I thought of this. She always used to talk about her family’s farm. And you used to talk about wanting to raise draught horses. You could do that there.”
“Did you know she lost a baby in the early spring?”
“No.” Alarm chilled Brand. “The messenger only tells me what she tells him, and she never said anything. Is she all right?”
Nellith’s husband shrugged. “She wouldn’t have worried you with it. Would have kept it from me as well if she could have. Fact of the matter is she was right poorly for a while-it was fairly far along when she lost it. We spent some of your money for a healer, and to get Talwyn in to help with the children. Nellie’s better now, but I’m keeping the girl on.” Jacyn’s brow furrowed. “’Tis true she’d enjoy being out in the country again, and it might help her to be there. I’ll take a bit to think on your offer, if that’s allowed.”
“Of course. The farm is yours until you tell me you don’t want it. If you’d rather I got you a bigger place here instead, I’d be willing to do that as well.”
The carter nodded. “I’ll talk things over with your mother. It is a generous offer and… I thank you for it, lad.” That last was a bit forced, but Brand was rather touched that his step-father had even made the attempt. And very surprised in the next moment when Jacyn said, “I met your father once, did you know?”
“No, I didn’t! Where?”
The carter ran his hand through his hair. There were a few silver threads there now that hadn’t been there when Brand had left Pelargir. “He was down here with a bunch of soldiers, doing that practice warring that they do to keep ready.”
“Aye, that’s what it’s called. Anyway, they’d a supply train that had not caught up with them, and the men were going to go hungry that night. So Lord Boromir’s quartermaster bought more supplies in town, and hired on some carters to take them out to the camp. I was one of them, and I was carrying the beer.” He grinned reminiscently. “Should have figured that would be a draw! When we get into camp, we’re all very surprised to find the Captain-General himself waiting for us with a big smile on his face. Thanks us for his men he does, says they’re that hungry and oh so glad to see us. Then he turns to me and says, ‘Broach one of those casks if you will, good carter. I’ll inspect the quality and toast your health all at once.’ So bless me if he doesn’t have someone bring us some tankards, and we all of us carters have a beer with him, him talking to us easy as if he were just normal folks. That was a great man, and don’t you forget it, lad! There’s plenty of people here who don’t. The King is well enough and all, but we remember Lord Boromir.”
Brand found himself having to blink a couple of times. “I wish I could have met him,” he said, his voice a little rough. His step-father nodded.
“It’s a shame it is that he’s not here. You do look like him a bit, now that I think upon it.” There was an awkward silence for a moment, then Jacyn cleared his throat. “I’ve spoke my piece, we’d best get back inside. That prince of yours will be waiting.” But he didn’t move towards the door, and when Brand looked at him in puzzlement, he growled gruffly, “Lords go first, or haven’t they taught you that part yet?”
Brand laughed. “I’m picking it up as I go along.” And he led his step-father back into the house.
Only someone who knew Andrahar as well as Brand did could have discerned the slight lessening of tension upon his return, and it warmed the boy’s heart to see it. Despite their current differences, Andrahar was apparently still capable of worrying about his former charge.
With matters settled between himself and Jacyn, things became much more relaxed and pleasant. Nellith had become very comfortable with Imrahil in their absence and caught Brand up on all the gossip of the street upon his return. Then, much to Brand’s embarrassment, the Prince said, “I have an apology to make to you, mistress, for I fear I let your son come to some harm recently,” and proceeded to tell the tale of the slavers.
Prince Imrahil had lost none of his story-telling ability, though Brand hardly recognized the stalwart young hero his great-uncle described, and was somewhat uncomfortable. He glanced up once to find Captain Andrahar still stone-faced, but Lady Hethlin giving him a smile that conveyed complete understanding. His mother’s eyes grew wide as the story progressed, and the carter listened with frowning attention. When Imrahil came to the part where Brand killed his would-be murderer, the carter, engrossed in the story, actually thumped the table with his meaty fist, making the dishes jump.
“That’s the way of it!” he growled with enthusiasm. “Never met the Southron yet who could stand up to a Pelargir brawler!” A moment later he recollected the company he was keeping and threw a nervous look towards Andrahar, who met his gaze with the same cool, ironical eyebrow which had caused generations of esquires to squirm in shame. He subsided, bending his head over the tea things, and Brand saw the faintest ghost of smile
play about the captain’s lips for a moment. Then he felt Brand’s eyes upon him and lapsed back into stolidity.
Brand found himself suddenly enveloped in a maternal hug. His mother had risen and made her way to his end of the table. “Oh, my poor boy!” Nellith exclaimed. “It must have been horrible for you! And how brave you were!”
“He was brave indeed,” the Prince agreed, and when Nellith had resumed her seat, continued the story through to its conclusion. Brand thought he came off rather too well in it, but Imrahil seemed matter-of-fact about the whole business. Until the end, when he looked across the table to Brand’s mother and asked, “Well, mistress, now that you have heard the whole account, what amends might I make you for my lapse in guardianship? And can you find it within yourself to continue to trust me with your son?”
Taken aback, Nellith stammered a bit. “M-m-my lord prince, I do not see that you are at fault at all. How can you be responsible for what some evil men do in your realm?”
“Actually, mistress, I am ultimately responsible for all that goes on in my realm”, Imrahil said ruefully. “Which is why I go to considerable trouble to try to stop such things before they happen. In this case, however, I was a bit behind.”
Nellith shook her head in disagreement. “No, my lord prince, I do not think you neglectful. As soon as you had missed Brand, you started looking for him, and you went after him in your ship as quick as ever you could. And besides,” here she looked her son up and down, and Brand was suddenly keenly aware of the difference between what was his mother’s best dress and his own good garb, “how would we teach him the things he needs to know, now that he’s a lord? This is no place for lordly folk.” Realizing how that must sound, she quickly added, “Not that you’re not welcome to come back or even stay if you wish, Brand dear, I didn’t mean to make you think…”
It was Brand’s turn to rise swiftly and make his way to the opposite end of the table. Embracing his mother, he said, “It is all right, Mother. I understand what you mean. I’ve lots more to learn there, believe you me!” He stayed there with his nose in her hair for a long moment, breathing in her scent of soap and lavender water, a trigger for all of his earliest memories. The Prince, watching them, smiled.
“Then we will leave matters as they now stand.”
As he had done the previous year, Brand then took all of his brothers and sisters for rides up and down the street, while the Prince chatted amiably with Nellith and Jacyn and his escort looked tolerantly on. The inhabitants of the street watched enviously. Some who had had little enough to do with him when he was the bastard son were all too eager to greet him now, he noticed.
Gaelbereth expressed such enthusiasm for his new horse that he took his mother and step-father aside and asked if they would like his little saddle-mare for her.
“If we decide to move to the farm we will talk about it,” his step-father said. “The horse would be easily enough kept then, though I shouldn’t like her to be getting ideas above her station.”
“If I have anything to say about it, she will have enough of a dowry that she might very well get ideas above her station and have some fine lad agree with her,” Brandmir said with a grin. That earned him another kiss from his mother and a grunt from his step-father, who had apparently exhausted his capacity for being agreeable for the day, but was not inclined to argue either.
It was almost full dark when they finally returned to the Vine and Sheaf Inn. Brand suffered an odd feeling of displacement for a moment when he handed his reins to the stable-boy, a lad whom he did not recognize. “Rub him down well, please,” he said.
“Of course, my lord,” the boy answered swiftly, with a respectful bob of the head, as he himself might once have done.
He turned away to find his great-uncle giving him an understanding look. “Are you all right, lad?”
He nodded. “It just feels strange, coming back here. Stranger than last year, for some reason.”
“You are older now. You have been away longer. That is why it feels strange. Would you like to come back to stay?” There was no anxiety or concern in the question, Imrahil merely seemed genuinely curious about his answer.
Brand thought about it for a long moment. He had truly missed his brothers and sisters over the last two years, though the homesickness had been worst during his first days in Dol Amroth. And from time to time he still wished that his mother could be there to console and counsel him. But on the whole…
“No sir. This place feels too…small for me now.”
“And the hundred acre farm? Would that be too small?”
Brand thought about that. It would be more of a challenge, but still…no going to sea on ships, no fine horses, none of the daily excitement and color that living in Dol Amroth provided. No lessons to be learned…He struggled with those lessons, ‘twas true, but he knew now how valuable the knowledge could prove to be.
“Yes, sir,” he said at last. “That would be too small as well. Though sometimes,” and here he gestured vaguely down his expensively-clad form, “this ‘Lord Brandmir’ business seems too big for me!”
The Prince smiled knowingly. “Trust me, lad, ‘tis better to have room enough to stretch and grow into, than to be in too small a place! And I have faith that you will do just that!” He laid a fatherly arm across Brand’s shoulders. “Come, let’s go inside and see what the good innkeeper has laid upon the table for us this evening.”