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12
“Oh. You actually like her! "

Having come to literacy late, Brand was not a quick reader even after two years of practice. And the archaic, flowery language in the book his uncle had recommended to him did not make matters easier. After manfully attempting the opening pages of the first chapter that night, he contemplated skipping to the marked chapter and reading that first, but that offended his sense of order, so he soldiered on until bedtime, reading and re-reading the passages he found incomprehensible.

The next morning, he approached the Prince over breakfast in the garden about the subject of a suitable horse for Lady Tathar to ride, so that he might keep his promise. Imrahil was very pleased when he heard what had transpired.

“That was both kind and thoughtful of you, lad. Liahan’s family is proud, and scornful of charity. Their lands are not particularly good, and they have other…expenditures which have put them in the position they are in. But Lord Lalven will not object if it is put to him as a favor to me. I keep a palfrey here for Mariel when she visits, even though she doesn’t really ride all that much. The mare should suit the girl well enough, and if Lady Tathar is exercising her then my stableman is spared the task.”

“Oh, good. I saw that little horse in the barn and thought that she might be something Lady Tathar could ride.” Brand smiled as he contemplated Tathar’s pleasure, then that smile turned to a frown as something occurred to him. “Sir, is there some sort of special way I should invite her?”

“There is indeed.” Imrahil said approvingly. “It is good to see that those lessons in etiquette have not gone amiss. You need to tread carefully where Tathar is concerned, Brandmir. She is a lady of good family and your behavior while in her presence must be beyond reproach. You cannot just gallop over to her house and throw pebbles at her window to bring her down.”

Brand sighed in disappointment. That idea had a certain appeal. It was simple, straightforward, uncomplicated. And he suspected that Tathar would have found that approach perfectly acceptable. But throwing pebbles was something he couldn’t do. Glass, to someone of his former lowly background, was a magical substance, expensive beyond any imagining, and he would never risk damaging a window. “I am going to have to write a note, aren’t I?”

The Prince chuckled at the lack of enthusiasm in his voice. It wasn’t that the boy couldn’t write, but that skill had come more slowly to him than reading in two languages, and speaking a second one. Brand actually had something of a gift for languages, as proven by his rapid progress in Haradric (though Andrahar had been of undeniable help there), but composition was still a trial to him, not to mention legible handwriting, despite two years of practice and correspondence with his mother and his friend in Pelargir, Serl. And he was obviously still smarting from the ordeal of having to write and re-write the thank-you notes for his birthday presents, an exercise his composition teacher had set him at the Prince’s suggestion.

“Yes, you are. To Lord Lalven.”

Not to Lady Tathar?”

“No. You write the note to her father asking permission to invite Lady Tathar to ride. And he will probably want to talk to you first. Then you write the note to Lady Tathar.”

Brand frowned. His simple good deed was getting more complicated by the minute! “After I write the note to Lord Lalven-”

“-and I will help you with that-” his great-uncle interjected.

“-and I talk to him and write the note to Lady Tathar and she agrees, then what happens?”

Brand, the Prince of Dol Amroth noted, bore an uncanny resemblance to his father, and most of the time his mother’s influence was nowhere to be seen. But at the moment the boy’s attitude was definitely a peasant’s sullen suspicion and fear of the worst. Imrahil smiled patiently.

“Then we find the two of you a suitable chaperone to ride with you. You cannot just ride out by yourselves.”

“Why not?” Then realization set in. “Oh, for pity’s sake, not that again! Do people think of nothing else?” Brand sighed in disgust. “I’m not going to pork Lady Tathar!”

The Prince choked on his tea. He’d not heard such peasant talk from Brand in over a year, but even in this regression there was a resemblance to Boromir, who had always been able to exhibit a cleverly crude turn of speech when he wished. “Brand! Language, lad!” he chided aloud, after he’d swallowed and recovered.

Brand had the grace to blush. “Sorry, sir. But it’s true.”

“I don’t doubt it. But since Tathar’s father will undoubtedly ask this question, I will give you some practice now-what exactly are your intentions towards Tathar?”

Brand gave the matter a moment’s serious consideration before he answered. “Well, I just liked her, sir. She likes horses like I do, and she was very friendly after she found out that it was you who had sent me. She’d been teased before, you see. Because of the spots. I liked talking to her. And I felt badly that she’d outgrown her pony and didn’t have a horse of her own, so I offered what I did. I’m too young to be courting people yet, no matter what Lady Merilin said. I just thought she might like a friend.”

“That is actually a good answer,” the Prince said approvingly, “though you might consider leaving the bit about the spots out. And, of course, any mention of ‘porking‘.” Brand bowed his head over his breakfast and the tips of his ears grew redder still. “And I am going to charge you with making sure that that answer is what both Tathar and her father know. Despite limited acquaintance, I do not believe that Tathar is one of those young ladies for whom acquiring a husband is the total focus and meaning of their lives, but if you merely want her as a friend, then be careful not to raise any other expectations by your actions.”

He was pleased to see that Brand took this very seriously. “I will be careful, sir,” he promised, looking back up at his great-uncle gravely. Imrahil regarded him for a long moment, then nodded in satisfaction. Then his mouth twitched slightly with a repressed smile.

“What exactly was it that Lady Merilin said?”

“She said that Lady Hethlin would be a good match for me! Can you imagine? And she also said that some of us should act our ages. That was while you were dancing with Lady Hethlin.”

“Did she now?” The Prince’s eyes were twinkling. “Gracious, could it be possible that I am a scandal again after almost forty years? I am not sure I remember what that feels like.” His most wicked, pirate’s grin manifested suddenly. “Do you wish for me to step aside in favor of you as regards Lady Hethlin? Since she is such a perfect match for you?”

Brand, who was not unfamiliar with his great-uncle’s more manic moods, eyed him warily. “No, sir.” Imrahil took another long sip from his cup.

“That is good to know,” he said, dabbing at his lips with his napkin. “Because I would not, and then we would have to duel to the death or resolve the issue in some other horribly impractical and romantic way. The minstrels would sing of us forever.” Brand snorted, and turned his attention back to his breakfast.

“Did you ever decide what you were going to tell Andra, lad?” the Prince asked after they’d both eaten silently for a few minutes. His voice was carefully casual.

Brand grimaced. “No, sir. But I did talk to Uncle Faramir about it.”

“Did he give you good counsel?”

“He gave me a book!”

Imrahil chuckled at Brand’s disgruntled expression. “You may be very sure that Faramir would not have done so if he did not feel that the book had some bearing upon your situation,” he assured his great-nephew.

“That’s as may be, but I’ve only just started it and it is hard going. He said he would talk to me again after I had read it, but I do not think he knows how long that is going to take!”

“What is the title of this difficult tome?”

Life Among the Savages, or something like that. It’s a really long title. Uncle said that it was a book that had saved Gondor from going to war a long time ago, and that you would tell me the story if I asked.”

The Prince’s eyebrows flew up. “Meneldor’s Among the Savages?” Brand nodded, and his great-uncle gave him a sympathetic look. “That probably is hard going for you, lad! I didn’t even know it was here-I thought it was at Dol Amroth. ’Rothos must have carried it here at some point.” A reminiscent smile came over his face. “Yes, there is quite the story there. I would be happy to tell you if you would care to hear it, though I must say that it was not all that long ago, not if you consider Gondor’s history as a whole. At least I like to think so,” he added wryly. “Young as you are, thirty-five years might very well seem like an age.”

“Were you married then, sir?” Brand asked curiously.

“I was trying to be,” came the amused response. “Your Uncle Faramir was two years old, and your father was seven. The book helped us to negotiate a peace treaty with the Haradrim, then the very next day Boromir almost broke the treaty and started a war all by himself.”

“How did he do that?”

Imrahil started to speak, then paused to look up and check the position of the sun filtering through the trees, and sighed in resignation. “I must be off to Council soon, lad, and it is a tale that takes some time to tell, if I am to do it justice. But I do have just enough time to help you with your note to Lord Lalven. Shall we do that instead, so that you may go riding with Lady Tathar sooner rather than later? I promise you, I will relate the story to you as soon as I may.”

Brand nodded. “Thank you, sir, that would probably be the best thing to do, busy as you are right now.” Disappointed as he was that he was not going to hear one of Imrahil’s legendary stories, particularly one including his father as a child, he saw the wisdom in the Prince’s suggestion. He did not want to have to write a letter to a man he did not know by himself.

“Then why don’t you go into the library and get the writing things and bring them out here? If I must be trapped indoors with crotchety counselors for the remainder of the day, then I might as well enjoy the sunshine while I may.”

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Helping to write Brand’s letter properly took up all of the Prince’s remaining time before the Council. In fact, he did not set off for the Citadel until the bell was ringing the hour. Brand apologized for making him late, but Imrahil was not perturbed.

“They can wrangle on for a few minutes without me. I am usually one of the first ones there. And besides, this is important.” He departed, calling for his secretary, after giving Brand a warm embrace. Brand sealed his note with plain wax, contemplating the possibility of getting a ring with his arms on it, like his Uncle Faramir’s Steward’s seal ring, then went into the house to find someone to carry the message.

The Prince’s house being well-staffed, it did not take long to find a footman to deliver his note to Lord Lalven. What was dismaying was that it also did not take any time for that footman to deliver the lord’s invitation that Brand come to see him that very afternoon! Lord Lalven was apparently not at the Council session, despite his daughter’s assertion that they had come to do just that.

Brand was more than capable of penning “I would be happy to attend upon you then, my lord,” by himself and he promptly sent his response back off, but once he had sealed his fate, panic came over him. He had certainly not thought this through carefully! In his rush to fulfill his promise to Tathar, he had not considered that the Prince, his usual advisor on social matters, was tied up in Council, as was his uncle, who would have been his second choice. Even Andrahar might have been able to help, had they been speaking, but the captain was busy overseeing the final academic testing for the esquires. The small barracks building adjoining the townhouse was unnaturally quiet, exuding a sort of intense hum instead of the more raucous noises the esquires usually made.

At a loss as to how he should dress and feeling unsure about his hard-won social graces, wishing for a little bit of last-minute coaching, he started to wander aimlessly through the house. Passing the open library door, he saw a slender figure disposed upon the couch, apparently asleep with a book open over its face. Such a position hardly looked comfortable, and he tiptoed in with the intention of removing the book and covering the sleeper with the quilted silk throw thrown over the back of the couch for that very purpose. But the moment he reached for the book, the sleeper’s hand shot out and seized his wrist to stop him, then slid down over his, feeling the fingers in an odd fashion.

“What do you want, Brand?” his cousin Amrothos murmured, without removing the book from his face.

“How did you know it was me, ‘Rothos?” Brand asked, intrigued. He hadn’t spoken at all, so his cousin couldn’t have recognized his voice. “Did you peek?”

“No. Didn’t have to. Young person’s hand, with bow calluses.”

“That could have been Lady Hethlin.”

“No. It’s true her hand would be about the same size of yours, but hers is harder and she would have better-developed sword calluses as well. Once more-what do you want?”

“I…I have to go visit Lord Lalven this afternoon, to ask him if he will let Lady Tathar ride with me. And I don’t know what to wear or do.”

“And you’re asking me?” Incredulity colored Amrothos’ tone, and the book was finally removed. His eyes were bleary, and he looked rumpled and disheveled. In any other man, such an appearance might have indicated a night of license; Amrothos, Brand knew, had probably just fallen asleep in the library after staying up all night reading.

“Grandy and Uncle Faramir are in council, and Captain Andrahar is testing the esquires.”

“As if you would have asked Andrahar!” Amrothos snorted. “I have given up waiting for the two of you to sort things out. What a silly mess!” Brand glared at him in affront, but he merely grinned, and pushed himself up onto one elbow, suddenly looking much more awake.

“So you’re visiting Lalven to ask if he will let you ride out with his daughter? Goodness, starting the courting a bit early, aren’t you?”

“We’re just friends,” Brand said, very much on his dignity.

Imrahil’s youngest son’s eyes were twinkling much as his father’s were wont to do. “Oh. You actually like her! Well then, I suppose my advice to look as slovenly, untrustworthy and lecherous as possible so you needn’t have to deal with her won’t help.”

Amrothos, Brand reflected, could be at times equal parts interesting and provoking. “No, that won’t help,” he said aloud, taking a firm grip on his patience. “Is that what you do?”

“Ouch!” Amrothos exclaimed, miming a hit to his heart. “The young archer strikes the gold!” But he seemed amused rather than offended. “No, I find that slovenly and very, very strange works well enough for me.”

Even the third-born son of the richest man in Gondor might expect to come in for some attention from the fairer sex, but given that Brand had never seen a court lady dance or ride out or willingly spend any time at all with Amrothos, his cousin’s assertion certainly seemed truthful.

“Don’t you like ladies?” he asked.

Amrothos sat up and stretched, yawning. “If you mean to ask am I like Uncle Andra, the answer is no.” A moment’s pause. “As far as I know.”

“You haven’t used your key yet?” Brand was surprised. Amrothos was more than old enough. This was a line of questioning he would not have pursued with anyone else, but Amrothos never minded questions of any sort, even personal ones.

His cousin’s eyebrow flew up. “No, I haven’t. A messy business, that all seems to me. Confuses and clouds the mind. I daresay that one day I will become curious enough about it to give it a try, but for now, I have more than enough to do.” His grey eyes bored intently into Brand’s for a moment.

“Have you used yours yet?”

The problem with asking Amrothos personal questions was that he had no problem asking them right back. Brand blushed.

“No. Not yet.”

“Well there is certainly no hurry, despite what ‘Chiron might tell you.” Another stretch. “But this line of discussion doesn’t solve your problem, and I can’t either. But I know who can. The most important man in Dol Amroth after my father. And fortunately for you, he’s here in Minas Tirith right now.”

Brand stared at his cousin, baffled. Confusion was a state he often found himself in when dealing with Amrothos. “Cousin Elphir isn’t here.”

Amrothos grinned wickedly. “I’m not talking about Brother. I’m talking about Father’s valet.”

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Maeddan was a short, slightly plump, unprepossessing man, whose brown eyes and somewhat dusky complexion hinted at Lossarnach blood or the remnant of Gondor’s oldest folk that still lingered in the more remote parts of Belfalas. Although he was the Prince’s servant, his manner was not in the least servile-rather it was that of a man who had moved comfortably among the highest nobles of the land for most of his life.

Amrothos had led Brand up to his father’s chambers and there they had found the valet quietly going about the endless round of chores involved in the maintenance of Imrahil’s extraordinary wardrobe. He listened attentively to the young prince’s description of Brand’s predicament, then nodded at the end of it.

“Of course I would be happy to assist you, Lord Brandmir. I am sorry that you did not realize you could call upon me for aid in such matters. The Prince would expect no less of me. Prince Amrothos, I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. You may leave it in my hands.” Needing no further encouragement, Amrothos headed back to the library, acknowledging Brand’s thanks with a casual wave of the hand.

The valet then accompanied Brand back to his own room. His perusal of Brand’s wardrobe took but a moment before he extracted one of Brand’s nicer blue tunics and breeches and a shirt and threw his blue-black cloak over one arm. With his other hand, he grabbed Brand’s good black boots and a matching belt and pouch.

“These will be most appropriate, young sir. I will ring you a bath and prepare them while you bathe.”

“But I had a bath just last night!”

“Cleanliness builds confidence, the Prince always says. You will feel the better for it, trust me.”

Maeddan was so masterful that Brand acquiesced without any further argument. He had just finished bathing and was drying off when the valet returned with his clothing and laid it on the bed. Maeddan gave him his robe, then sat him down in a chair and did arcane things to his fingernails. He also produced a comb and a pair of scissors from some mysterious place on his person, draped a towel carefully about Brand’s neck and began trimming his hair.

“You should come to me for such things, young lord,” he declared as he worked. “Master Cuilast is a most excellent surgeon, but his knowledge of hair-cutting is very…workaday. I see that you have your uncle’s cowlick, and such things require more expertise than Master Cuilast possesses.”

Brand was of the opinion that “workaday” was just fine-Cuilast was fast and thorough and Andrahar had certainly seemed to think the result neat enough. Maeddan was taking forever it seemed, snipping only a hair or two at a time. But he did not tell the valet that. “You cut my uncle’s hair?”

“Only once, at Prince Imrahil’s request. It was soon after the King’s coronation and apparently the King had cut Prince Faramir’s hair himself for some reason. Elessar’s command on the field of battle may be unequaled, but his barbering left something to be desired. Prince Faramir had just acquired a new manservant himself, so the haircut was as much an instruction for that gentleman on the proper way to deal with cowlicks as anything else.” Maeddan said nothing for a little time after that, the only noise being the intermittent snip of his scissors.

“Have you considered, my lord, that you should acquire a manservant of your own?” he asked eventually, as he gently whisked away the cut pieces. A hand mirror was then moved about Brand’s head so that he could examine the results. As much as Brand liked Cuilast, he had to admit the Prince’s valet had managed to coax his normally unruly locks into the most mannerly coiffure he’d ever seen.

“No…no, I hadn’t.” The possibility had never occurred to Brand, nor did he see any need. He and Andrahar had had their laundry done at the castle, and a good many of their meals there. Their domestic needs when at Andrahar’s house had been ably met by Mistress Alfirin. Princess Mariel seemed to like to shop for his clothes, and he was all too happy to leave her that task. And if he stayed with his uncle, he was certain the Steward of Gondor had a staff.

“You might give it some thought. A knowledgeable manservant could be of benefit to you in many ways as you seek your place in society. I know of a couple of good prospects-younger men than myself as I believe you would probably prefer-should you wish for a recommendation.”

To actually be paying someone to wait upon him was that final leap that would confirm beyond doubt that there was never any going back to being Brandmir of Pelargir, and that made Brand uneasy. But he couldn’t think of how to express that to the valet, so he fell back upon another explanation.

“I am going to be an esquire in a couple of years. They are not allowed servants. So it doesn’t seem fair to take somebody up and then let them go in a couple of years or have them sitting about with nothing to do.”

Maeddan gave Brand’s statement thoughtful consideration. “Yes, I can see where that could be a problem. You might indeed be wise to wait until after your graduation.” He removed the towel about Brand’s neck and gestured him to the dressing screen. Brand went behind it and was presented with his garments, which he found to his surprise were much improved. He would not have thought it possible. The shirt seemed brighter and was totally wrinkle-free, crisp and fragrant, and the breeches and tunic had been brushed and aired. He began to dress.

“With the Prince going to war, I will have some time on my hands,” the valet continued as he gave Brand’s boots a critical eye and a judicious buff with a soft brush. “Should you require the services of a manservant for a special occasion, please know that you can always come to me for such. I would be only too happy to render what small service I can, and as I said before, the Prince would expect me to.”

“That is very kind of you.”

“It is nothing. I am happy to be of assistance.”

“You’re not going north with the Prince?”

“Oh no! His Highness has sergeants who see to him in the field, and instruct the esquires in the way of things. And though it shames me to admit it, I have no idea about how to maintain armor!”

“What will you do while he is gone?”

“Prince Elphir will keep me busy, never you fear! There are always guests at Dol Amroth and I will serve them. And maintaining the Prince’s wardrobe is truly a full-time task, even when he isn’t present.” Having some idea about the extent of that wardrobe, Brand was all too willing to believe that. But the mention of Prince Elphir, and Brand’s knowledge that Imrahil’s eldest was responsible for Dol Amroth’s intelligence, caused him to look at the valet in sudden speculation.

“Master Maeddan? Do you speak any languages besides Westron?”

Maeddan chuckled. “I hope you will not be offended if I refuse to answer that question, Lord Brandmir.”

Brand cocked an eyebrow. “That refusal is a sort of answer all by itself, you know.”

“Indeed it is. But while we are on the subject of intelligence, young sir-would you like some background on Lady Tathar’s family?”

Brand owned that that would be very helpful and over the next few minutes, in a very concise and thorough briefing learned a great deal about Tathar’s family holdings, connections and history. Tathar was the youngest of seven children, a rare feat of fecundity amongst Gondor’s noble houses, and a bit of ill fortune when the noble house was as impoverished as Lord Lalven’s. Lalven’s oldest son helped him to defend and manage his lands, and both he and Lalven had fought in the coastal battles. The second son had gone to sea in his youth and now captained a ship in Dol Amroth’s navy, the third had joined a trading company in Dol Amroth. As fourth son, Liahan’s prospects had been nonexistent-until he had been fostered in Dol Amroth as a child at Imrahil’s suggestion. Nelladel was the oldest of the girls and given her age and lack of dowry, was unlikely to ever marry. Tathar’s next oldest sister had made an unexceptional marriage to a merchant in Pelargir. Tathar had been a late baby, and there was a twelve-year gap between herself and the rest of Lalven’s children. She too had a dearth of dowry that even a good pedigree would not ameliorate.

Brand learned that Tathar’s mother had been a great beauty of the court and that she was deemed to have married beneath herself when she chose Lalven. She had died of an illness during the Ring War and in the last desperate battles against the Corsairs, Lord Lalven had sustained a severe injury to his sword arm. He had not lost the arm, but it was maimed and of little use. Brand was particularly glad to have that information, for he feared he might have stared or acted inappropriately had he been surprised.

“Lord Lalven’s house is down in the third circle, my lord,” Maeddan concluded. “I will see that you have an escort who can show you the way. You needn’t worry about the interview-Lord Lalven is a reasonable man, and will undoubtedly agree to your request. He will probably even welcome it. There is, however, one final thing, and it is most important.” At Brand’s inquiring look, the valet continued. “How do you feel about dogs?”

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