This somewhat meandering little story follows up on the string of ficlets written for B2MEM 2009: Shield Man, Counting Costs, and Bitter Victory.
Nargil - you are on my hit list. Take that for a dedication.
Isabeau - it is so your turn!
Nargil - you are on my hit list. Take that for a dedication.
Isabeau - it is so your turn!
“Put him in my bed.”
It is his first order. Or his second, after commanding the healer's help. The deck is still awash in the blood and little clots of blue tunics that are alike the detritus of war. Men would need direction in due and approaching time. Imrahil breathes deep past the pain of his own wound and light-headedness and glares when Palarran just stares at him.
“Do it,” he insists.
“My lord, you yourself must – ”
“I want him where I can keep an eye on him,” Imrahil cuts him off, because vision is blurring and his head is ringing, and he wants his oath-brother settled now, in such comfort as Olwen can offer, and above all safely.
Or where Andrahar cannot slip his life uncontested at least. He shakes his head against the thought and its dizzying.
“I think, my lord, that you should lie – ”
He never hears the rest.
Duty soon sees him back on the decks despite Palarran's protests, having gained a sling and lost his bedside seat to the ship's boy. Which is fair, he supposes, for he could've lost the arm altogether, and he must care for all the crew, not only one of them.
But constant as the hours, he returns, between orders and oversight, to look in on his brother. Palarran and Falanmir are but two and needed badly elsewhere – as is he, but he steals the time. The ship's boy simply lowers his eyes when he looks in.
He never gets a greeting.
Nightfall finds him flat out on the couch built into the hull of his cabin. Proprieties should likely be observed, and he does not trust his brother to wake gently, either.
Yet weary as he is, he cannot sleep, and after a time sits up painfully. A captain's many concerns flood his mind as the moonlight does the portholes: the ship, his crew, the prisoners. The watches that must be stood. The letters yet to write. The long way home to friendly ports. Time hangs heavy.
“I don’t know if I can save his life or his leg yet,” Palarran had said once, and later: “There's naught to do now but watch and hope.”
Imrahil watches, hopes because he cannot fail to, and he fears in that same measure. The waves wash against the hull in a long, whisper-hiss of time uncounted passing.
On the bed, in the moonlight, Andrahar stirs, groans. Too swiftly Imrahil rises, and so staggers, dizzy, to his side. “Andra?”
No answer, but the other shivers... and then again. The prince reaches, grasps a hand, frowns, then lays the back of his own to his brother's cheek.
The aft watchman marks the ship's boy's flight down the deck, the lantern light blazing to sudden life in the captain's quarters, and soon enough the healer, turned from his bed, dashes to the prince's door, his robes billowing behind him. Bad signs.
The sailor gives the Uinen charm he wears upon his wrist a kiss and signs her warding: dawn will see his Lady lay a loving eye on even their Southron, or else she'll keep them from his shade. The healer and the Lady shall decide it. His duty done, he thinks no more about it.
Imrahil meantime finds time has stopped and he with it. The watches of the night fall away like flesh from bones – useless measure before fevered dreaming.
“Blankets for the shivering, and water to cool him,” Palarran orders, and when Imrahil has heaped every blanket he possesses over his brother, the healer sends him off to rest while Palarran sits up.
He does not, of course. Imrahil lies sleepless with his eyes shut, listening to water fall back into its basin as Palarran wrings it out, to wordless little whimpers. He feels every grain of sand slide through the glass like a weight on his chest.
He will be well, he tells himself, remembering how many men he has seen through such nights.
Not as many, traitor memory reminds, as he has seen die ere dawn.
In time, he rises once more, sits to Andra's other side. Palarran looks up, stares a moment, then swallows his rebuke.
Dawn breaks like fire over the waves.
Falanmir comes to tell the number of their company – three fewer than the night just past. “They are ready for the sea,” he says, gentle spur to duty.
His captain runs a distracted princely hand through his hair, nods and rises. “A moment,” he says, half plea, half promise, and Falanmir nods, though he does not leave, but stands ready to assist. Imrahil's thanks are pale as the waiting corpses; the morning's swift toilette – swift as one arm and a helper can make it – somehow ends with him facing Andrahar, not the brass seaman's mirror.
“Let's go,” he says, when Falanmir has got his hair back into its queue, and departs, cloak crushed in one hand. But on the way aft, he drapes it artfully to cover the sling. And none can say those buried this morn were not well sent forth, grieved with grace.
Falanmir, between berths below deck among the wounded, watches his lord make rounds among his injured crew. The prince holds a few hands, tells a few yarns, threatens, cajoles, encourages between his other duties. But on the hour, he sees that cloak trailing in the breeze as Imrahil, like sea to shore, returns to Andrahar...
The sun climbs up the sky, and Andrahar's fever mounts with it. Imrahil watches the flush steal over even his face. At least the dreams depart – or at least, his brother no longer gives them even wordless voice.
“Fevers rise and fall. It is early yet,” Palarran reminds him.
It was late this morning, Imrahil thinks. He does not say it, but the thought stays with him with him as morning becomes noon becomes afternoon and heads towards evening. He still gets no greeting, unless it is Palarran urging patience.
His own shoulder throbs. He sits through Palarran's ministrations, eats without relish, and loathes the couch as he lies down to pretend to sleep.
Falanmir comes to take Palarran's place for a time – the healer must eat and see to other patients and rest himself.
“Wake me if he wakes,” Imrahil says without opening his eyes. There's a hesitation across the room, then:
“Aye, my lord.”
That worry laid to rest, sleep comes with shocking swiftness.
Another night and another soul passes. Imrahil hates his daybreak duty, and hates the gratitude that swells in his breast despite grief that at least it is not Andra. Not yet.
Who is awake at least – finally. Exhausted, but when Imrahil looks in at lunch, he opens his eyes.
“What happened?” the other asks, squinting at the sling when Imrahil draws near to take his hand.
A blink. “Oh.” Then: “Idiot.”
It lacks the force it ought to have, but the rebuke heartens. Imrahil grins, grips his brother's hand more tightly. “I know,” he answers, ere Palarran intervenes.
“Lunch time,” the healer says pointedly, and chases him away.
Imrahil obeys, departs with a promise to return. He takes his meal with his second mate by the main mast. Siweard grins at his gusto.
“We're still a week from port,” he says, mock warning. They are still a week from port, on the back of two weeks abroad. Nevertheless, the food seems better today.
The afternoon slides into the sea in a long, lengthening heat that makes the air seem the more chill against his skin. But it brings Imrahil back, too, and that is a comfort to him.
Andrahar has hung on Imri's visits – blessed distraction from hurt and weariness. And from weakness – that above all. Palarran strives to be pleasant and reassuring – which but reminds him of the need for pleasant, soothing company that will not tender any shocks.
He hates it. He hates worse that courtesy takes such effort and to no end. Palarran is polite about his bad temper, and Andrahar fights the urge to break his teeth for it.
Not that he could, which makes it worse.
Imrahil is artful, though – artful enough to be forthright in perfect measures, and make all seem artless, easy, natural.
Maybe it truly is.
Whatever, it is a balm to better even his mood and so he ignores the shrill, insistent pain that will not quiet – strives to match Imrahil as best he can, and for a little while, feels almost himself.
But that is a tiring thing, truly. Strange that he's never noticed before...
Exhaustion looms. Andrahar struggles, but pain saps strength: between one sentence and the next, he's unconscious.
Next morn, Imrahil steals from his cabin, wary of waking his brother, and goes about his duties. No funerary speeches, thankfully, though the lookout calls a weather watch – there's rain to port.
The captain of the prize crew, his first mate, having found time at last and his prince recovering, attends upon him with the treasures of the late captain of their captured vessel. Maps, the ship's log, a set of letters – Dol Amroth's spy-master shall be pleased indeed.
And there are other things to speak of: injured prisoners need a proper healer, so Palarran is sent across. Rations must be transferred from ship to ship, for the Haradric vessel was made to hold more men, though there is some question of how well dried peppers will go down.
Afterwards, Imrahil brings his first mate's findings to his own room and sets them carefully within an oilskin sack for safekeeping. Andrahar is awake, if groggy, and in need of the chamber pot.
Imrahil has only one good arm, and Andrahar one good leg and is shaky besides. But between the bulkhead and Imrahil, they manage, though it's an awkward, painful, embarrassing effort, and afterwards, Andrahar is dizzy and exhausted.
“Rest,” Imrahil orders him. “Or I'll have Palarran on you as soon as he returns.”
Andrahar merely snorts softly, but closes his eyes.
The first watch wears away. Imrahil once more visits his wounded crewmen below deck. 'Tis a less anxious duty today than in the past two days, he finds, and so stays longer.
But come noon, he sallies forth to his quarters once more to force lunch on his brother, whose appetite for weeks old rations is understandably depressed. Nor do the rain and roiling seas that have finally caught up with them help.
Andrahar tries, though, and afterward listens to Imrahil read through the captured ship's log, and speculate as to ports and people and costs of operation until it grows apparent that he cannot follow any longer.
“'Tis the storm,” Andrahar insists. “I'm sorry.”
“You've no need for sorrow, but for sleep,” Imrahil says, and grips a forearm in farewell.
Beneath his fingers, the other's pulse beats swift and hot.
Rain batters the windows, and the waves claw the hull. The sea anchors are down, and all who can huddle below deck.
Imrahil plots courses, dates, drop-points at his desk, frowning over gaps in the log and unfamiliar names and strange poetry. He frowns, too, after awhile, at his sore shoulder that hampers his charting. And from time to time he casts an eye over at his brother, who sleeps on, oblivious to the storm.
Though Andrahar must need the rest, Imrahil finds he wants to wake him. Just to make certain all is well. All is not well, of course – he knows this – but anxiety has crept back in to twist in his stomach. But wounded as he is, Andrahar does need to rest, and so he refrains.
Eventually, he seeks his own bed. “Good night,” Imrahil says, but gets no answer, and slips into uneasy dreams.
Next morn he wakes slowly to a grey, hard sky and the sea-song of white-capped waters. And in the drowsy silence between waves, Andrahar's breathing – short, shallow, panting. Imrahil frowns, sits up.
No answer, but he knows, suddenly, that Andrahar is awake. Or rather, not-sleeping. Though he has not moved, and his eyes are closed, instinct born of long friendship is unerring: Andrahar is not asleep. Imrahil rises, sways with the ship over to the bed, stares down at the other.
“Andra?” He lays a hand on his shoulder, and battered brown hands fist in the sheets. Fear surges through Imrahil, breaks like a wave, as he flips the edges of the blankets up – and then dashes for the side door. The ship's boy in his small cabin is startled when it flies open, but he wastes no time when Imrahil orders:
“Get Palarran – now!”
There might have been something on the blade that brought Andrahar down. Or it could be that in the rush to stop the bleeding, Palarran missed something – a bit of cloth, a sliver of metal, a splinter – something.
Whatever, the wound has to be lanced.
But the sleeping draught Palarran tries to give does not take: from pain or seas or – terrifying thought – illness, Andrahar vomits it back up almost immediately.
Still, it takes three men in the end to hold Andrahar down, though 'tis not the lancing itself that is so much trouble. 'Tis the probing and the flushing with some medicinal liquor that finally overtaxes will, though by then, he hasn't the strength to struggle long.
After all the horror, Imrahil tries to soothe him into sleep, but he'll have none of it.
“If I am to die,” he rasps, “so be it.”
“Andra,” Imrahil chides gently, surprised, but Andrahar is delirious, between pain and fever caught as all his Westron abandons him.
“I will not live a cripple, some useless mockery of man!” Glassy black eyes fix on him, and Andrahar grips his arm with sudden, fierce, surprising strength. “Promise me that.”
What can he say to the unexpected fear in those eyes and that demand? “You will never be useless, nor mockery of aught,” he vows, and frees himself to press scarred palm to palm.
Andrahar says nothing, only shuts his eyes.
The hours have come undone again: they stick and stay, drag by, reluctant to come or go. Nothing is timely. Everything takes time. Imrahil has a headache by day's end.
Palarran has little news, and none of it good: Andrahar hasn't kept a thing down since this morning.
“He's feverish still,” he adds.
“Tell me the truth,” Imrahil demands. Palarran spreads his hands. The prince sighs, and 'tis not without pity that the healer tells him:
“Eat something, then go to bed. I will sit up tonight.”
Duty compels him to obey, but when he's eaten and settled on the couch, he has his small rebellion. As the night passes, Imrahil lies sprawled and sleepless, listening to the ship. She is full of sighs and groans, of wood creaking and moaning.
Sometimes, Palarran shifts and sighs with her. But all through the night, he does not rise, save to refill the wash basin with water from time to time.
'Tis near dawn when Imrahil at last hears footsteps cross his floor. “What news?” he asks, ere Palarran can reach to wake him.
“Good news,” the healer says, and smiles. “He's awake and well!”
“Thank the Valar,” the prince breathes, and fairly tumbles from his bed –
– eyes fly open, and Imrahil gives a little gasp, convinced that he is falling, then he hisses, cradles his sore arm that did not like the clench and jerk. But he looks to his bed. Disappointment floods his breast then – there is Palarran slumped in his chair, there Andra unmoving and ill. Naught has changed. Dreams are so often cruel!
Listless as a sick babe, Imrahil lies and would lie longer, but the day calls, and so does duty, and so he sighing rises.
When he goes to claim his wash basin from the healer quite asleep in his chair, however, his eye falls upon his brother, who stirs slightly at his passage. Andrahar breathes the slow and steady rhythm of sleep. There is sweat upon his brow, and beading above his lip and in the hollow of his throat.
The fever has broken!
Imrahil bows his head, sags where he stands, and smiles.
Thank the Valar!
After the storm, it's full sails, say the weather-wise. And so it is: Olwen stretches her sea-legs, while her crew dreams of meals made fresh, of family waiting, of prize money and a little time to lick their wounds, some of which run deeper than others.
Andrahar protests his place, wants to remove to less exalted quarters or at least the couch. Imrahil will have none of it, and fights dirty.
“Come,” he says, coyly when no one can hear, “you know you cannot protest confinement to my bed!” And while Andrahar is at a loss still for words, says more gravely: “Four days more – 'tis little enough for the scare you gave me.”
His brother quiets at that, and for a while they address themselves to nothing but the meal. But in time, they set aside their dishes, and then they've nothing left to look at but each other: bandaged and bruised, Imrahil with shadows beneath his eyes, and Andrahar somewhat gaunt about the face.
“If I promise to give more weight to sound warning henceforth, will that serve better than apology?” Imrahil asks at length.
“If you do it, then yes,” is the answer.
“Then I shall,” he says simply. Andrahar nods, lowers his eyes of a sudden. “What is it?”
“What of your other promise, my lord?” his brother asks. When Imrahil says nothing, only frowns, Andrahar presses: “Should the day come, am I to live halved and beyond my service?”
Imrahil is silent for a time. “Do you fear so much to prove useless and unmanned so?” he asks.
“I have myself and my sword to serve with. They are what I am, Imri.”
“But are they all you are, brother mine?” he demands, pointed reminder. Andrahar hesitates, and into his silence, Imrahil replies: “Then when you can tell me 'yes' without fear or doubt, I am vowed in vain and wrongly, and you are free to make your end, however you will have it. But today,” he says, and risks a smile, “you will serve, though with pen, not sword – the ship's log is coded in allusions. Will you do this?”
And he knows there is no fear of refusal – his brother is too much the honor that Harad instilled to refuse.
He watches that same knowledge work upon the other, who then takes his hand and kisses it – southern obeisance and thanks, though the wry note in his voice is all Gondor when he says:
“Yes, my lord.”
Four days to reach Dol Amroth. Sailors take turns walking wounded friends on deck, those who can walk. The captain goes more freely about as well, for his oath-brother shall live, it seems, and his mood is catching. Good fortune is, perhaps, catching. For they are half a crew, but holding steady – there have been no more dawn calls to last rites, and men abandon caution to a full and hearty hope that the worst is past.
The aft lookout stands his watch, and smiles to see that confidence in even faltering steps. He looks to mainmast, to the pennant flying straight out, pointing their way. The wind is high and constant, the sea sparkling beneath clear skies. The Lady of the Seas must be well pleased indeed, he thinks, and lifts his wrist to kiss that charm once more and gratefully.
Give you good day, my Lady, and of your good will, we'll all see home again!