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Tolerances
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Tolerances

Tolerance: n. 1. A permissible deviation in the fineness and weight of coin, owing to the difficulty of securing exact conformity to the standard prescribed by law. Also called allowance.

2. The power of enduring or resisting the action of a drug, poison


~~~

In the lamplight of an autumn's evening, in a little manor set above a broad green vale, dotted with sheepfolds, a lord took up his pen and bent over the sheet of paper on his desk.

September 15, 2980.

My son,
he wrote, and smiled as he did.

Every father wishes what is good for his children and his family, so it pleases me to be able to write at last and tell you of the rise in our fortune: Master Brethildin, who is a wool merchant of a prosperous house, has agreed to our suit on your behalf. If it is not so high a match as I had desired, still, it is more than once I had dared hope for. And as you know, it does not hurt our fortunes to ally with so able a man.

Moreover, since your service to the Prince will most often keep you far from home, better your wife be one whose family is accustomed to travel, for then she need not be sundered wholly from them. You will be pleased, I hope, to learn that Baraniel is a gracious young woman a few years your junior.

All is prepared – when you come home for the Yuletide holiday, the betrothal shall be confirmed. I send now what is needed to make it complete.

Be well, and take care, my son! Your mother sends her love and your brother his regards and well-wishes.

I implore you to be careful, and remain your loving father,

Palavir of Hathwyn


~0~


October 3, 2980

It was late in the war season when Olwen swept into Pelargir. The days were dying, each one ending a little earlier, a little more redly as the sun sank down, making the air waver with its heat as it dipped below the rim of the world. Almost, they were free of war for another season. Almost.

At the least, Peloren thought, with vast relief, there would be no call to venture out onto the waters again, save to return to Dol Amroth. There, they could ride patrol 'til November iced the roads, by which time, the sea would long since have become hardly navigable, save by the foolhardy or the brave. Short trips, perhaps, but no pirates, and no foreign ports. Peloren, who had never gotten on very well with the life of a marine, thought of saddle sores and smiled.

But for the moment, they were back from chasing pirates down the coast, and the Heir, their captain, had declared a few days' shore leave for his weary crew. His sailmaster and first mate in any case wished to have some time at port to see to a few of the breaks in their hull that ramming Corsair hardwood had left, and Peloren had no quarrel with such care. Indeed, he would more readily ride home, and were it up to him, he would have.

It was not, of course, but at least he would have some days ashore with few duties.

Even on leave, not all nights were free, however.

“Who has the prince's watch?” Aldan asked him, as the two of them collapsed onto their beds. By common consent, they were sharing a room at The Whistling Kits. Their days in the Fledglings' Wing had proved their friendship, and so they bunked together more often than not and benefited by it. Aldan, at least, rarely had reason to stay out overlate, and Peloren, when he chose to take advantage of a free night, made it a point of honor not to return 'til sun-up, so as not to disturb his roommate, whoever he might be.

A man on the prince's watch, though, but rarely needed concern himself or his roommate about the hour of his return. To the Swan Knights among the marines the prince's watch meant only one thing. Somebody had to make certain that Imrahil made it safely back to the inn, or else (more often) stayed safely in whatever brothel he chose to patronize. The latter, at least, was hardly a difficult task, though for men like Aldan, who were well and happily married, it could be a tedious chore to fend off the persistent advances of the ladies of the house.

Hence Peloren gave him a sympathetic look, and said: “The sergeant assigned you and Tarvil for tonight, and our two newest, Thargil and Dolendur, have the last night. Betwixt and between, there's Halion and I, and then Andrahar has scheduled himself to keep an eye on Imri the other two nights.”

“And he worse than me, when it comes to the lasses!” Aldan tsked, shaking his head, for Andrahar's indifference to bought-and-paid-for “companionship” was a well-established fact, at least among the Swan Knights. Indeed, “indifference” was too mild a term:

“If I wish to bed down, mistress, I'll do it, but I will not lie in your bed of silver,” he'd once been overheard to tell a particularly insistent whore; “There is no challenge in that.”

Naturally, the precise meaning of such words had been the subject of much ribald speculation, and, indeed, some concern as well. Andrahar, who never lacked for boldness with a blade, likely was as bold when it came to bedroom matters, or so reasoning ran. Quiet consensus had it therefore that Andrahar was likely asking for trouble and the swiftest, most unhappy sort of marriage if ever the girl's incensed relatives brought complaint to the Prince.

Aldan, who had had to win his way into Naleth's affections before ever she'd opened her arms to him, was inclined to be sympathetic to Andrahar's perspective inasmuch as the rewards of a challenge were concerned, though less so to the notion that the challenge involved in wooing a lass who wasn't for hire ended with her approval alone.

“He wants a challenge, he should try asking her hand – that's a challenge,” he'd opined. “There may be no joy in paying for it, but there's no honor in poaching, either.”

So far, though, no one had appeared to make a claim against Andrahar, and no one had ever managed to catch him with a lass, either. And since Andrahar and Aldan were of one mind at least when it came to the drudgery of dealing with the brothel's lasses, Aldan snorted softly and sighed, “Two nights on the prince's watch. Glutton for punishment, our sergeant!”

“So it seems, though it does spare him other complaints,” Peloren pointed out. After all, no one was going to have the temerity to ask for release from that duty when Andrahar, by admission of one and all, did more than his fair share of minding the Heir. Peloren spared his erstwhile enemy a moment's guilty recognition for his pains, then stretched, and rolled off the bed. He grabbed his pack, opened it, and began quickly stowing his clothes in the trunk at the foot of his bed.

When he'd finished, he turned to his roommate and declared: “I'm for a walk before supper. Will you come?”

Aldan, however, shook his head. “If I am to spend my night sleepless in a chair, I shall take advantage of the bed now,” he replied, ruefully. “Sorry, Pel.”

“Not at all. You've a long watch before you.”

“And yourself?” Aldan inquired. “Will you be accompanying Imrahil anyway later?”

“Mayhap. Since I've the night free, I might as well enjoy it.”

His friend raised a brow. “Aren't you nearly married yet?”

“Nearly betrothed,” Peloren corrected. “And that not yet!”

“You know, though, that your father will see the match go forward,” Aldan chided gently.

“That is the very way of things – if not to one girl, then to another.”

“And her own expectations?” his friend demanded.

Peloren sighed softly. “Aldan, what would I know of her expectations? I do not even know whom my lord father and lady mother are considering! 'Tis the dower that is at issue, not her expectations, whoever she may be, or mine. For myself, marriage is soon enough to think of expectations, but I'll honor the betrothal when it comes. 'Til then, I'm free.”

It was Aldan's turn to sigh. “You are at that. Forgive me, 'tis not my affair, lad, but that I would not see it turn out all unhappily for you, and there it is a matter of expectations,” he said. “Yours and hers, in the main. But,” he said, and gave Peloren a brief and reminiscent smile, “I swore off free advice some time ago – pay it no mind, then! Enjoy the evening.”

Which speech, and the other's unfeigned concern, did serve to cool the little ire that this discussion, on the troublesome topic of marriage and alliance, had inspired, and Peloren smiled in return. “I shall. And thank you, Aldan.”

This time, Aldan just snorted and waved him away with a benevolent chuckle. “Just be certain that whatever else you do, you make no pledges from out the bottom of a cup, Pel,” he warned.

“Never fear!” Peloren declared, and with that, departed.


The Whistling Kits lay in respectable quarters, perhaps a half mile from Pelargir's dock districts, and its stately inns and houses cast cooling shadows. Peloren, who had thought to take a slow tour of the neighborhood, ere long abandoned such intentions and let his stride lengthen, enjoying the sense of liberation that came of confidence in his own gait, now that he had not the sea's heaving to contend with.

With the evening dark drawing on ever sooner, lights were already being lit outside doors and upon porches, and the warden's lads and lasses were out in force, setting the street lights to blaze. He followed in their wakes, watching them dash from one post to the next with their latch-hooks and lamps, trying to outpace each other. The breeze from off the sea slowed them a little, but not by much, and the day's heat and the cool of the air promised a beautiful night. Peloren listened to the happy chatter of men on the move in the streets and sighed contentedly.

Perhaps an hour later, feeling much improved, and with the acuity of any man of arms for such matters, he returned from his circuit of Pelargir's streets just a little ahead of supper. Nor he alone: approaching from the dockside streets was a familiar blue-clad figure, moving with that fluid swift purpose that instantly suggested men not cross him. Andrahar noticed him at about the same moment, and lifted his chin slightly, acknowledging Peloren's presence; the young Swan Knight nodded back.

“Sergeant,” he greeted him.

“Peloren,” the other replied, before proceeding immediately to business: “Anything of note about?” For on-duty or off, whether on sea or on land, the Heir's safety was ever his first, last, and abiding concern. Peloren, who had long since ceased to wonder at the lengths to which Andrahar went, merely shook his head.

“Not that I saw. Merchants aplenty, of diverse lands, but no trouble,” he answered. Andrahar grunted, gave a nod.

“Dockside dealings end perhaps four streets from here, but that is no reason to let our guard down,” he concluded.

A silence fell between them, then. Once, it would have been a grim affair, that silence, filled with the anger that came of bad blood not yet bled clean. Since Calardin and Prince Adrahil's judgment, silence lacked that weight of wrath, but unless Imri were about, or they had some shared task to see to, it could still be awkward. Time and experience and battles fought together had fostered such respect that they were not unfriendly, but four years after their desperate stand against Corsair raiders, and six months after Hurrhabi, they still were not, properly speaking, friends.

Given that they had once been enemies, Peloren could but count that an improvement, and had thought himself content to be Andrahar's brother-in-arms, even if fraternity was now differenced by Andrahar's elevation to sergeant for their ship's complement of Swan Knights that everywhere accompanied the Heir. But lately he had begun to feel that even if they could not truly be friends, they might be somewhat more easy about each other – have something more to speak of when together like this. Perhaps he had been spoiled by Elethil and Teilin and Aldan, to say nothing of Imrahil, but Peloren thought he preferred a little more, well, warmth to his brotherly relations.

The trouble was that Andrahar seemed unlikely ever to admit as much, if indeed he felt any lack between them. Imrahil's oath-brother had never been one to seek others out, or at least, not among the Swan Knights. Peloren knew, if mostly by report, that the man did maintain some ties among the Haradrim in the South Docks of Dol Amroth, and even in Pelargir. Which was not to say he was friendless among the Swan Knights these days, but he knew of no one beyond Imrahil from whom Andrahar had deliberately set out to win more than his respect and admiration. It was odd. It was also perfectly in keeping with the Southron's apparently boundless reserve.

And it meant that if Peloren wished for more than respectful, if somewhat awkward, silence, he would have to make the first efforts himself.

A pity he was so uncertain how to go about such! Still, perhaps inspired to a certain virtue by Aldan's concern (or else by the common knowledge that inviting Andrahar to come along for a night with the lasses was a futile endeavor), he ventured to ask: “I'd thought I might go with Teilin and a few of the others tonight to try my luck at tafl or cards. You've the night off – care to join us?”

If Andrahar were surprised by the invitation, he did not show it. “Thank you, but I fear I've other matters to attend to tonight,” he declined politely.

“Then another time perhaps.” And then, venturing further: “What business?”

“Chaperoning.”

“But you're off duty,” Peloren protested.

“Not for the prince.” Andrahar seemed to hesitate a moment, but then shrugged. “Do you know Mhar-ašel of Harondor, who lives above the South Docks?”

“The taverner at Three Winds?” And when Andrahar nodded, Peloren said: “Elethil likes to go there. He introduced me. What of him?”

“He is kin by marriage to a merchant here – Tila'at of Pelargir.”

“Tila'at?”

“He is Ta'alsheenite. Mhar-ašel as well,” Andrahar added, before pressing on to the point: “I met him once at Three Winds, and again in Pelargir some two years ago. He has a younger son, Chakkhaurin, whom he looks to marry profitably, if he can win the betrothal tonight. I met him a little way from the dock, and he told me. He's asked me to stand with him for Khauri tonight as a... champion, more than chaperone, I suppose.”

“Oh.” Somewhere between surprise and a pang of unexpected fellow-feeling for perhaps another luckless second son, that “Oh.” The frown that graced his lips a moment later, however, had other origins.

“Why?” he asked, adding quickly: “It seems strange to me, that is all, that he would not have someone already if it is tonight.”

“He does, but caste matters, and especially when the dowry is at stake.” Peloren must have been staring at him, for Andrahar raised a brow and said, with just a hint of offended propriety, “In this land, to serve the Prince of Dol Amroth is not nothing.”

“Ah. Of course,” Peloren replied, swiftly banishing astonishment from view, if not from mind. Though he had of necessity learned somewhat of the Haradrim as an esquire, he was not well-versed in such things as courting customs, those being less of interest to Swan Knights seeking to know their enemies. He knew that warrior caste “bred and bled,” as the saying went among the Haradrim, commanded respect. Andrahar, however, only fulfilled the “bled” half of that formula, and was baseborn besides – hardly qualities Peloren would have thought would make his support desirable in marital matters to Haradrim, had he ever thought about it.

Which he had not, he realized. It was not as if he had ever inquired as to Andrahar's caste standing among the Haradrim; he'd never had a reason to ask. He supposed that he'd simply assumed it must be on the whole lowly, given the tale of his rescue from Harad. Then again, Andrahar did serve with the sword, which likely made him somewhat like a mercenary in Harad's eyes.

That still might not be much advantage when negotiating the bride-price, but Imrahil's favor, well-known in Pelargir as in Dol Amroth, could apparently lift him above his own native circumstances. If the lass's family were not too far above the lad's, Peloren supposed Andrahar might well be able to lend prestige to the suit and make the alliance more likely, without being so elevated as to be immune from being pressed into service...

Or perhaps he was overthinking this, and on no good grounds. The intricacies of friendship across caste were unknown to him. Outside of Andrahar, Peloren had not cultivated any friendships with Haradrim, beyond that of patronage from time to time in their taverns, usually in Elethil's or Imrahil's or Aldan's company. And it was not as though his cultivating efforts with Andrahar had long or deep roots – in truth, they gave him absolutely no standing in matters of courtship and “chaperoning,” and it was not as if Andrahar were looking for his opinion on the whole affair anyway.

So Peloren said simply, “I hope it goes well, then.”

“Thank you,” was Andrahar's reply, and then, perhaps in the interests of avoiding any further awkward inquiries, he tipped his head slightly towards the inn's door. “We should rejoin the company.”

Peloren nodded, and followed the other inside, then over to the table that Imrahil, his first and second mate, and a few of the Swan Knights, Aldan among them, had commandeered.

As was so often the case on the homeward leg of a journey, supper was lively, filled with the easy chatter that came of anticipation of return to loved ones and familiar places, and the enthusiastic plotting of the night's adventures. The innkeep's wife tended to them, and when they'd done, they thanked her, Imrahil leaving a large tip on behalf of them all, after which, they sallied forth.

Once on the streets, the group broke naturally into two: those following Imrahil, and those not. Andrahar stood some little while with the prince, but then he leaned in, murmured something to his oath-brother, and got a raised brow and a nod. Imrahil clapped him on the shoulder, and then Andrahar made off on his own southeasterly, heading towards the docks and the Haradric quarter.

Peloren watched him a moment, then, feeling honor-bound not to make a lie of earlier claims, and perhaps affected by a new consideration born of Aldan's words, he attached himself to several of his married brethren, who were intent upon a tavern known for its games rather than its pretty lasses. Not that he would say 'no,' should one such appear, but he had three more days to find his way to that sort of entertainment, and Pelargir was hardly lacking in such houses – not with as many sailors as it harbored. And it was not as if he objected to the company of his somewhat older peers, whose ranks he was destined to join in a future not so very far away...

So Peloren joined Teilin and Ciryandur and Narendil at The Gull and Piper, enduring their quiet jests and ribbing of the ringless stray in their midst. At least he gave as good as he got – on the gameboard, that is, though when, some hours later, they turned to cards, he found himself humbled. Peloren lost three rounds in a row at one point. He recovered somewhat, managed to not-lose for a turn, and then made one weak-pursed win, but the next four hands cost him two silver crowns, at which point he laughingly surrendered.

“Having spurned the ladies, it seems Fortune will not lie with me either,” he declared, and got chuckles for his play. “I shall take my revenge another day, gentlemen.”

“Well, no hurry,” Narendil said blithely. “Your coin is always welcome!”

Laughter and good-nights rose at that, as did Teilin to walk out with him. Though most thieves preferred less troublesome prey than Swan Knights, the dock districts of Pelargir boasted a few robber-rings who, more bold or more foolish than many, might be moved to try one. Moreover, with so many landed sailors about, one had always to watch one's step lest one find oneself up against an entire crew of drunkards who, by virtue of nature and training, were unlikely to back down over a few blackened eyes or broken bones. The Swan Knights therefore made a habit of going in pairs, to discourage trouble and assist each other should it arise.

It was a clear night as they quit the tavern, and the moon was high overhead, brightening the sky. The lamps along the street cast a warm glow as they walked, the two of them chatting lightly of inconsequentials. Nor were they the only ones: though it was late, many were still abroad, and from the taverns and inns and brothels, one could hear many voices and much laughter, while from the darker corners and alleys, one could see shadowy shapes and murmured pleas – Pelargir's beggars, among other, less benign denizens, were out in force.

“A little farther and we can breathe easier on Shipwright's Street,” Teilin remarked after a time, as they skirted the edges of a brawl that had spilled out of one tavern. Peloren nodded.

“I am sorry to have taken you away early,” he apologized, then, for he knew Teilin played a very ruthless game of dragon draw. Teilin shook his head, though.

“If Fortune was not with you, she was not with me, either – Narendil clearly had her tonight,” the other replied.

“I suppose he is due a favor after the last time he played with you,” Peloren mused, and got a chuckle.

“If he had wanted to save his coin, he could have bet less and made a longer run of it, to see if she would take a turn with him. He is not so patient, however!”

“Nay, he is not,” Peloren agreed, before nodding at the street ahead, and adding: “Though impatience can sometimes be an example to imitate, I think!”

At that, Teilin gave a little growl of disgust and on unspoken agreement, they quickened their pace. For the two of them were coming upon the very edges of the Haradric quarter, which, if not an especially dangerous neighborhood, had nevertheless a few streets with an unsavory reputation among Gondorians.

There was the Street of Apothecaries, for one, which might be tame by day, but by night, the bottled wares and crushed herbs and powders that passed over counters or from hand to hand in the street were not simply medicinal. And if one continued on a little ways, one would pass by Green Street and the Taverner's Row. Well-kept and scrupulously clean, with few brothels and many an inn and tavern, they were said to boast some of the best Bakshiri cooking to be had outside of Harad itself.

But despite that, one did not venture upon them if one valued one's reputation.

For though the law was perfectly clear about certain intimate practices, Dol Amroth and Pelargir had, over the centuries, made uneasy accommodation of their Haradric populations over them. Intercourse among men might be vice and perversion, and not to be encouraged, but it was hard to overlook the fact that among Haradrim, that particular vice had a definite and well-revered place, especially among the more prosperous and noble castes.

The lords of cities that boasted large numbers of Haradrim, having pondered the matter at more length than they likely had ever desired to, had more or less informally decided that if it were too much trouble to exterminate the practice at the root, there was some benefit to keeping it confined to a few streets that everyone knew about. So long as rowdy brawls did not break out, so long as the innkeeps and taverners, with their private back-room “parlors,” did not seek to cater to Gondorians or extend their reach beyond those streets, and if the men who sought in them a place for their unnatural trysts were mostly Haradrim and discreet in their affairs, the law tended to look only with one eye, and from time to time at that.

Peloren at least would give the law no reason to look on his account. He had no interest in ever venturing down those streets, and Teilin was married and hardly restrained in his dislike of such practices, so they moved quickly, skirting around more leisurely traffic. Dodging between a little clot of Haradric merchants who were standing about, arguing, and a brewer and his boy pushing a cask, Peloren found himself obliged to turn sideways to slip past them. In so doing, he ended up facing straight down Green Street.

In lamp-lit doorways, men stood in pairs or trios, and there were a few larger groups as well, whence drifted the murmured rhythm of conversation in an alien tongue. Laughter went up among one such group, which had gathered beneath a lantern hung above a tavern's threshold, and one of the Haradrim leaned upon the shoulder of one of his companions and bowed his head, apparently so overcome with mirth he felt the need of support.

His movement let Peloren catch a glimpse of the man across from him, and Peloren froze. It was a swift moment, and then the other turned away, taking the arm of one of his companions, as the entire group began migrating into the tavern. In the crush of bodies, all swathed in dark colors and several in Haradric robes, he lost sight of the other entirely, but for just a second, Peloren could have sworn he knew the man.

“Pel?” Teilin had realized his companion had fallen behind, and turned back; now he stared with knit brow at Peloren, who was still slightly agape. “What is it?” he demanded, glancing mistrustfully down the street.

“I... did you see – ?” Peloren hesitated, wanting to ask but fearful of prejudicing the answer. Finally: “That group before the tavern – did you think you recognized any of them?”

“On Green Street?” Teilin was frankly skeptical.

Peloren shook his head sharply, trying to clear his mind a bit, and he forced himself to relax. “No, of course not, I simply... it must have been a trick of the light.”

“Undoubtedly,” his friend opined. He gestured towards the main thoroughfare, now visible a little ways ahead. “Come on, Pel – nothing on Green Street is reliable, including the light.”

Peloren managed a laugh at that, and he made no protest as Teilin led the way, falling easily in step with him.

But he couldn't shake the image, and the conviction that, despite the unreliable light and the brevity of the moment, his eyes were not deceived. That the man he'd seen in that little space of time was indeed well known to him.

And that he was none other than Andrahar of Umbar.

~ 0 ~


The next day, Peloren, somewhat tired and out of sorts, was out in the inn's yard with a practice blade almost as soon as the sun was up. He had not slept particularly well last night, preoccupied with the image and implications of Andrahar on Green Street. Despite the weariness that came of a sleepless night, though, his unease made him restless, and if he could not take a ride, he had determined to make the most of the morning practice session.

His brothers-in-arms, however, though not known for being laggards, evidently preferred to let the sun have an hour to herself before rising to their labors. Peloren got through three sets with only the kitchen help for an audience before anyone joined him.

Naturally, it would be Andrahar.

The Southron did not disturb him with any greeting, just watched a moment as Peloren swept through his parries, then gave him a wide berth and claimed a tract of the yard for himself. Determinedly, Peloren pressed on, concentrating on the weight of the blade in his hands, on the feeling of muscles warming to their task so that each set of parries and attacks grew more fluid, easier, more precise. He fell into their rhythm and thought thankfully quieted to a pleased, wordless hum.

When, after another five passes, he paused and stretched, Andrahar was deep into his own sets. Peloren recognized the basic form – anyone who had sailed against Corsairs knew it, and knew its mastery as the mark that differenced them from the rag tag mercenary pirates who preyed upon the vessels of both lands. Na farans kai nai khanu, hehn ani bheran kai halan hriru – “The needle and the khan's sword keep and kill.” Though fighting with a shield in many ways offered more certain defense, Peloren would readily admit that he could see why the warrior caste of Harad preferred the elegance of defense that “came by the curve,” as the saying went. Shields, as the Haradrim saw it, were the province of the clumsy or the unsure; the true defense of a warrior born was the scimitar parry, and his best kill one close, at the needle's point.

Andrahar, who could be accused of many things, but certainly not of clumsiness or lack of confidence, moved through the intricately timed parries and attacks as if he were dancing. But where “the needle” most often was a dagger, even among the warrior caste, Andrahar had a sheathed Nightshade in one hand and a practice sword in the other. And although Peloren was not wholly convinced that the various double-sword styles were truly practical forms, watching his brother-in-arms flow through the motions, he thought he might yet be persuaded of it.

With a quick block and a lunge, Andrahar finished his set, and as he straightened, he spun Nightshade in flourish, and gave a nod, as if satisfied. Then he turned to Peloren.

For a short space, they stood watching each other, and Peloren tried to decide whether Andrahar seemed in any way hesitant or uneasy this morn. But before he could come to any conclusion, the other pointed with his sword at Peloren – or rather, at the dagger strapped to his hip – and said: “Go a round?”

There was no reason to refuse, so Peloren stepped into place, accepting the blunt, wooden practice dagger that Andrahar picked from his pile of weaponry and lobbed at him. He saluted, Andrahar returned the courtesy, and then the two of them sank into their stances, Peloren forcing himself to focus only on the present.

For sparring with Andrahar was an exercise in finesse as much as it was of endurance. Though still young, Andrahar knew his way around a blade like few others, and perfection was not too little to ask, so far as the Southron was concerned. He was also quick and nimble, which kept fights from turning into bludgeoning matches. But what made him truly formidable, as anyone who had ever faced him knew, was his uncanny sense of timing – he knew how to read a man and use his rhythm against him, or to alter his own timing to throw his opponent off stride. As a rule, matches ended very quickly, and there were many of them, until his adversary chose to bow out.

This morning, however, it was Andrahar who, after only four rounds, called a halt. Peloren, surprised, reflexively glanced over himself, ensuring that the arming coat hadn't suffered some mishap, or that he hadn't suffered some mishap that he hadn't even felt in the heat of the moment. But nothing on or about his person seemed awry, and so he looked with some confusion at Andrahar.

“What is it?” he demanded.

“You're not closing to strike, Peloren,” the other replied.

“I'm sorry?”

“You're not closing,” Andrahar repeated, sounding somewhat irritated; “Every time you have an opening to go in with the dagger, you step back. I've nicked you thrice for it.”

“Ah.” Peloren frowned, reviewing the bouts in his mind a moment. “I suppose I am not.”

“I know that you are not,” the other replied, in a tone that brooked no doubts. “Why?”

Why was he backing? Peloren found he had no answer – surely not to save his own life, for every man who knew something of fighting with daggers knew their range. Step in, not out – sergeants drilled that mantra into fledgling esquires and pages relentlessly. He'd heard it – from brother, father, and Swan Knights – in one form or another, since he was eight. Nor was he so overawed by Andrahar that he wouldn't risk attack, but only defend, either. Why was he backing, then?

Andrahar cocked his head at him and his silence, but then raised his weapons once more. “Again,” he ordered; “And this time, mind what you do.”

Breathing deeply to try to settle himself, Peloren sank into a basic guard, waiting for his opponent to come on. Sure enough, Andrahar, after circling a bit, darted forward on the attack. Peloren blocked the first strike, then caught the down-swing on his dagger, bringing his sword up flat, tip angled down to protect against the scimitar's edge.

Andrahar spun, breaking out of the parry, and came right back at him. Peloren dodged the lunge and tried to bring the pommel of his sword down on Andrahar's back, but was thwarted when the other folded neatly down and rolled, lashing out to kick Peloren as he did. Done full force, it likely could have broken his arm; as it was, it was enough of a strike to make Peloren's hand go numb, and he cursed as the sword slipped from his fingers. Andrahar finished the roll and came easily to his feet, moving in immediately to press the attack again.

His sword hand effectively useless, Peloren had little choice: he stepped in and thrust. Andrahar pivoted. With a ring and clatter, weapons hit the earth, and Peloren grunted as Andrahar trapped his left arm beneath his own, then turned in toward Peloren to bring his right forearm down hard on the back of his neck. Andrahar dropped abruptly to one knee, leaning forward, his weight and hold forcing an overbalanced Peloren down with him.

Peloren managed not to curse, but he did gasp as he landed flat on his stomach, and then hissed as his left arm was twisted up behind him. Andrahar pinned him there, his knee pressing into his back 'til he thought his arm would pop free of its socket. Years of training left him the presence of mind to slap the earth – hard – in signal of surrender. Instantly, Andrahar released him and rose. Peloren lay there a minute, breathing heavily, and trying to decide how his ribs felt. Definitely sore, but no breaks, he judged at length.

A brown hand appeared, hovering just above him. Peloren, after a moment, took it and was helped to his feet. Andrahar looked him up and down, one heavy brow arched severely. “That,” the Southron declared, “was pathetic.”

“So my ribcage tells me,” Peloren muttered.

“You should listen to it,” was the unsympathetic response. Then: “Are you well, Peloren?”

“Fine,” he replied, giving himself a shake and flexing his fingers, wincing slightly as that bruise made itself felt.

“Your defense says otherwise.”

Peloren shook his head. “I'm not sure why...” And then he slid to a halt. Perhaps it was the way Andrahar was looking at him – intent as Andrahar ever was, there was something in that gaze that said the other was on his guard. If he'd been a dog, there would have been a ridge of fur all down his back. Of a sudden, it came to him:

He knows I saw him last night! He was not certain before, but now he knows!

Peloren felt his stomach knot. Without quite knowing what he was saying, he spoke: “Maybe I should take this as a rest day.”

“Maybe you should,” the other agreed, voice even and unrevealing – which in itself spoke volumes, and Peloren seized the offered retreat.

“Good morning, then.”

Andrahar nodded, but said nothing more, just watched his erstwhile opponent take up his practice arms and make good his escape into the inn. Aggravated, Peloren took the stairs two at a time, and Aldan looked up when he barged into their room without knocking. His friend noted the dust all down Peloren's front and face, and he frowned.

“Early to be hitting the dirt,” he observed.

“Talk to Andrahar about that,” Peloren replied, somewhat crossly. This did not, however, elicit any further concern – indeed, Aldan's expression lightened considerably.

“Oh ho! The sergeant caught you out, did he?”

In the worst way, Peloren thought, though aloud, he said only: “Truly, Aldan – guard yourself. Methinks the sergeant may be in one of his moods.”

“And me just off a long night with half the women of the lower docks, it seems,” Aldan sighed. He clapped Peloren on the shoulder, then paused a moment, looking him up and down. Something like concern, and also confusion, crept back across his face, as though his friend sensed, then, something lurking behind the dirt and sweat. But he did not ask. Instead, he said only: “Ease up, lad – 'tis shore leave. Enjoy it.”

With that, he departed, practice sword in hand, to take his turn getting the stuffing beat out of him, since a moody Andrahar usually meant a very instructive, but very, very bruising, practice session. For his part, Peloren just stood in the middle of the room for several minutes, listening to the morning greetings of Swan Knights emerging into the yard below, and tried to decide what to do. But for the life of him, he couldn't think of a thing, and so eventually, with a sigh, he set his gear in the corner, grabbed a set of clean clothes, and made for the bath house.

~ 0 ~


Peloren had essentially three options. So he decided after a day spent ruminating over the numerous small chores that plagued Swan Knights, and all the more when their gear had to contend with damp sea air for long stretches of time.

He could broach his concern with Prince Adrahil.

Or he could talk with Captain Valandil.

Or he could speak with Imrahil.

Of the three, though one might expect the Prince to be the most severe, Peloren found himself thinking that if it were severity he sought, Valandil might be more his man. Valandil, after all, was responsible for discipline among the Swan Knights, and had the power to expel a man from the ranks, if he deemed it necessary.

That usually needed some substantiated charge of conduct unbecoming a knight, some serious violation of the Code. Peloren was not entirely certain whether congress with another man counted, particularly since it was not as though he had witnessed any such act. He had merely seen Andrahar among a group of Haradrim on Green Street. Undue risk to the reputation of a Swan Knight seemed as though it might merit a warning, perhaps some minor penalty, but probably no more. It would depend, he supposed, on how Andrahar's Haradric blood weighed with Valandil: would that make it more likely in Valandil's eyes that Andrahar had gone there to indulge in such perversities as happened on Green Street, or would it suggest that he had probably thought nothing of the sort when in the company of a group of Haradrim, who might simply have gone seeking a meal to their taste? Peloren could not venture a guess.

As for Adrahil, while the Prince had power of high and low justice within his realm and over all his subjects, and certainly would brook no challenge to his writ, Dol Amroth had streets not unlike Green Street. That might mean that Adrahil would take the long road and avoid any overt action unless some further incident warranted it. And that was without considering how close and in what good regard the Prince held the man who had saved his son on more than one occasion from Imrahil's own folly.

As for Imrahil, the Heir frankly could not be relied upon to say a word against his oath-brother, or so Peloren thought. That was, perhaps, unfair to the Heir, but though Peloren could not know with certainty unless he acted, he would have wagered most of his worldly possessions on two things. Firstly, that if Andrahar had any secrets, Imrahil already knew what they were. And secondly, that first being true, that Imrahil not only knew whether Andrahar were a lover of men, but that if he were, Imrahil did not care and would certainly do all in his power to protect him from the law. The only severity the Heir could be counted upon to exercise would fall upon the one who pursued the matter.

That left Peloren once more to ponder the fundamental question: Was he looking for severity in this instance? Did he care?

His stomach, which was busy making queasy little knots in itself when he thought about the matter, insisted that he care at least a little. For that matter, his stomach was not alone in its opinion: the rest of him seemed to follow right along. After all, he'd never hesitated to step right into a block or an attack before, but if the morning's exercise had proved aught, it was that the knowledge of Andrahar's proclivities did matter. He didn't want to close with Andrahar – he didn't want to be in such close quarters.

And you share a washroom with him – you, and some hundred other Swan Knights, your brothers! nagged the scandalized voice of nausea. Never mind that of all of them, Andrahar had always been the one to insist on covering himself, on keeping to a corner of the room where he could face a wall and not have to look at any of them, or have any of them look too freely upon him. Indeed, in the light of recent history, such habits took on a meaning beyond being the modesty peculiar to a different upbringing. What if Andrahar did desire one of the Swan Knights? Or more than one? Surely the effort not to look, and to hide himself, suggested he felt a certain temptation!

But suggestion is not knowledge. You do not truly know anything, whispered a contrary voice. What did you see, after all? So he was there, with friends, it reasoned. It might have been to celebrate – perhaps that betrothal was pledged. The Haradrim find nothing disreputable in being seen in such quarters, and Green Street does have some of the best food in Pelargir. So 'tis said.

That was reasonable. It made very good sense. The trouble was that Peloren couldn't believe it. If that had been all it was, Andrahar would have said so. If he had nothing to hide, he would have spoken – he would have said something after the last bout, at least, Peloren was convinced. But he hadn't. He hadn't even pushed Peloren on the morning's poor performance, and he should have.

That, more than anything else, served to convince Peloren of Andrahar's own motives, though that other voice continued to resist the conclusion, and he did not know why. What proof more did he need to silence it, after all? Love letters? To catch him not just in the wrong place, but in the very act? Peloren recoiled before such possibilities. He was not a spy or a thief, to go through someone's pack for such private correspondence, and as for the other possibility – revulsion welled up in a refusal no mere 'no' could adequately convey. Whatever the rewards of certainty, Peloren was of the opinion that no one could possibly pay him sufficient to seek out and obtain that kind of evidence.

And yet, he needed it. He needed to be certain – he needed hard evidence, not merely good inference. Then and only then could he decide his course, he thought.

So how to obtain it?

The problem preoccupied him the rest of the afternoon. Since he and Andrahar traded off evenings on the prince's watch almost until their departure, the next few nights offered no chance for Peloren to try following Andrahar, just to see if there were someone in particular that he met, apart from the others – always assuming Andrahar decided to go off on his own instead of remaining with the Heir. And though he might have tried tailing him that day, Andrahar remained with his brethren, staying well away from the Haradric quarter, save that Imrahil insisted on taking him and the second mate for lunch somewhere down in its depths. But that was it, and if Peloren thought Imrahil were unlikely to prevent Andrahar's liaisons, he did not think so ill of Andrahar as to believe that he would put his oath-brother and sworn lord in the position of covering for him like that. Besides, there was the second mate to consider, too, who was irreproachable, so far as Peloren knew.

Nor did Peloren dare inquire among the other Swan Knights about any rumored improprieties beyond what was already bandied about; if they had no suspicion, Peloren would not give them cause for it himself, just in case he were wrong. And he could not ask Imrahil, reasonable as that might be. It just sat ill with him, for if Imrahil knew, then he had almost certainly sworn to keep the secret, and Peloren, despite his qualms, did not like the notion of placing Imri in a position to choose between his loyalties to Andrahar and Peloren, for it would do none of them any good.

Which left him with a vanishing list of chancy resources, and no certain way forward – save one.

Could we not have had done, he demanded of uncaring fate, with awkward conversations? Are we not due some little respite from such troubles?

But he could think of no other, certain alternative, which meant it was a matter of getting Andrahar safely alone.

Grimly resolved, then, Peloren went hunting.

~ 0 ~


He tried at first to be subtle about his pursuit. He attempted to invite Andrahar to lunch the next day, only to find that in fact, the betrothal had been successfully negotiated, and in consequence, Andrahar had been claimed by his Haradric friends already for the next two afternoons to celebrate their success.

“What of our last day here?” Peloren had asked, hoping his persistence did not seem too peculiar... or desperate.

“Imrahil has already asked,” Andrahar had told him, and then paused a moment, before suggesting, “You would be welcome to join us, however.”

There was a well-disguised note of discomfort there, but Peloren had felt unable to say 'no,' for it would have seemed strange, given his own asking, not to mention rude. But there would be no chance of speaking alone with Andrahar while Imrahil was present, and so he had continued to seek a way of gaining Andrahar's company away from the others.

This, however, proved difficult, since whether on shore or on ship, Andrahar was the company's drill master and he kept himself busy mornings with such duties. When he left them to Imrahil so as to go with his friends in Pelargir in the afternoons, there was obviously no chance to accompany him, and Peloren had no intention of loitering about on the corner of Green Street or the Taverner's Row to see whether he could catch Andrahar coming off of one of them. Beyond the discomfort such lurking posed, strictly speaking, it would likely prove nothing.

Peloren had thought perhaps he might be able to speak with him their last morning in Pelargir, since Andrahar had declared it a rest day from all training; if need be, he had thought, he could excuse himself afterwards from accompanying Andrahar and Imrahil to lunch. Yet though he was up early, Andrahar apparently was up even earlier: he was not in his room. Peloren, who took a walk about the neighboring streets on the off-chance of catching sight of him, enjoyed the sunny day, but saw neither hide nor hair of his quarry. Even Imrahil was unsure of his whereabouts.

“I am certain he is about, though,” Imrahil said, when Peloren inquired.

“He has been gone long already,” Peloren observed. “Since before dawn.”

The Heir had frowned, considering this. “Well, I suppose he might have stayed out last night,” he mused at length, and Peloren blinked.

“I thought, though, that he was with you last night?” he ventured, hesitant to seem as though criticizing, though frankly, he was surprised if that were the case.

“Oh, he was. We walked back here together,” Imrahil assured him, happily ignorant of Peloren's motives. “But he might have left again after I went to bed, though I think it rather more likely that he simply rose early. You know how he is.”

If only I did, Peloren thought, but did not say so. Imrahil took his silence for agreement, and shrugged the matter off, then, saying, “He ought to turn up soon in any case, and can tell us himself.”

In fact, Andrahar returned within a quarter of an hour, with the excuse that he had gone for a walk of his own, leaving the city, even, to walk inland along the farmers' lanes. “We'll see enough of the water tomorrow,” he declared.

Imrahil laughed at that, and Peloren managed a smile, as the three of them made off down Pelargir's teeming streets. Perhaps because Peloren was along, Imrahil picked an inn that served both Haradrim and Gondorians, and could cook for either, rather than choosing someplace down in the depths of the Haradric quarter, and the three of them settled in. Imrahil, ever the genial host, was all too happy to carry the conversation, for which Peloren silently blessed him. He certainly had nothing to say to Andrahar at the moment – nothing, at least, that could be said in public. And if Imrahil noticed that neither Peloren nor Andrahar seemed willing to talk to each other much, he did not remark upon it, thankfully.

After lunch, perhaps feeling the need to help foster such burgeoning friendship as might be implied in Peloren's recent efforts to keep Andrahar's company, Imrahil kept the two of them as opponents on the chess board. This proved an easier topic, one that even Andrahar and Peloren could speak of, in the taunting way of rivals, the three of them trading off playing the winner of the previous match until it was past time for them to return to the inn. Supper saw the ship's complement all together in the main room, and afterward, Aldan and a few of the others claimed him for another try at the cards. Andrahar and Imrahil remained in a corner together, talking with Olwen's officers, 'til at last, they all retired.

And so the next morn, Peloren dragged his gear aboard ship for the last leg of their homeward journey, defeated by chance and a ship's close quarters.

~0~


It was not, in fact, until almost two weeks later, well after they had docked in Dol Amroth, that the opportunity presented itself, and that by chance. For though Captain Valandil had taken pity on them and kept his newly landed Swan Knights close to home, Peloren was swiftly snatched up by the Master of Horses to help with the final breedings of the year, and to help see to horses injured of late or sickening with the turn of seasons. He did not resent the labor, for he liked best such duties, but they did keep him busy and with little time to himself.

Peloren was last on the field, finishing up at one of the smaller fenced-in pastures where some of his four-legged charges were recovering after a stint in the stables, when he caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned swiftly.

Andrahar, clad in stable-wear homespun himself, leaned against the railing, watching the horses. Peloren had not heard him approach.

“Sergeant,” he said, not quite able to suppress his surprise.

“How do they fare?” Andrahar asked, nodding at the couple of geldings nosing about the field for late clover.

“Better. Someone needs to teach their riders to give better attention to them after a hard ride, though,” Peloren replied.

“I have charge of a punitive sparring session tomorrow. Send your heedless lads to join us, if you wish.”

“I had thought to have them muck out the stables with the pages.”

“No reason they cannot do both.”

“I suppose not,” Peloren admitted. There was a brief silence, during which Peloren, well aware of their isolation out in the pastures and that this was precisely what he had been seeking all that week in Pelargir, struggled to find some appropriate way of broaching so delicate a matter. He was, however, spared the need for such, for Andrahar said abruptly:

“The answer is 'yes', I was on Green Street.”

“I – you were?” Peloren blinked, taken aback. And when Andrahar merely gave him one of his withering looks, he shook himself slightly. “You were,” he repeated, then mused: “So you did see me, as well.”

Which was obvious, but for a wonder, it seemed Andrahar found no cause to comment on that. Indeed, he apparently had nothing to say. Peloren, after a moment, sighed, and said, “I suppose that, since you are here to tell me this, I am answered as to why you were there.”

“I was there with Tila'at and his family after the betrothal was agreed to,” Andrahar corrected.

This time, it was Peloren who leveled an unhappy look at the other. “Granted, but why wait more than a fortnight to tell me this if you have never had another reason to go there?” Somewhat to his surprise, Andrahar did not answer, just looked away, staring out at the pastured horses. Peloren grimaced.

“You have won honor and acclaim here, and even from men whom you know had no love for you once,” he found himself saying, voice low and urgent. “Does that mean so little that you would risk indulging in such...?” Peloren trailed off, finding himself unwilling to be quite so crude as to name aloud such acts.

“I do not take lovers to scorn any man's opinion of me.” Andrahar's expression hardened then, as he finished: “If others take offense, that I cannot help.”

“That is not what I mean!” he protested.

“I know what you mean,” Andrahar shot back. Black eyes, unrevealing as the night, fixed upon Peloren's face, then, as the other continued: “What I do not know is what you intend. Two weeks and more you have had to consider your course, Peloren, and now you have your answer from my mouth. What will you do with it?”

“What can I do with it?” Peloren demanded, in a sudden burst of anger. “The law is the law – what would you have me do with this confession? And you are a Swan Knight – a sergeant. What you do matters, and how you look on us – !”

The rest of the words stuck in his throat, and in the charged, excruciating silence that followed, Peloren, uncomfortably aware of the other's nearness, felt every inch of him exposed before that dark gaze, on edge with anticipation, and he thought he might never welcome a blow from Andrahar more. Because if it were anything but, he would flinch, and above all, he did not want to flinch.

Long they stared, and neither moved, and the air between them thickened like a thunderstorm, 'til at length Andrahar spoke again. “The law is the law,” he repeated, tautly, and then concluded, with the look of one made to swallow a thorn: “And if I would be just, I may not ask you to break it.”

Peloren blinked, and his jaw dropped a little, as Andrahar turned back to the horses, leaning his arms upon the railing once more. “That's it?” he demanded after a moment's stunned staring, when Andrahar neither spoke nor moved. “You've nothing more to say?”

An eloquent shrug answered him. “You spoke rightly. What more would you have me say?” Andrahar asked, quietly.

What indeed? Peloren shut his eyes a moment, and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “Does Imrahil know?” And when Andrahar hesitated, he sighed. “Of course he does.” Andrahar, happily, did not insult his intelligence by contesting him, just stood there at the fence with his hands clasped tightly, one in the other. “Who is he?”

“No.”

Peloren's eyes narrowed. “I need to know – ”

“No, you do not.” The tone was sharp, and the glare it accompanied, oppressive. “You have enough for your conscience; I will not be party to your curiosity!”

“I suppose you will tell the captain so, should he inquire,” Peloren retorted, sarcastically. To which, the other answered, in quite clipped tones:

“The captain will do what he must to compel me, should he inquire.” Andrahar paused. “Will he?”

“That is for the captain to decide.” So saying, Peloren turned to leave. He had not gone ten steps though, when Andrahar called after him.

“Peloren.” Peloren stopped, but did not turn back as Andrahar continued more quietly: “Tell me when I have ever looked on you – on any of you – to gratify myself, and I will be all the witness you need to Valandil.”

And that was all. Peloren, caught in the ambivalent swell of feeling these words provoked, left the other standing, and continued silently on his way.

~0~


To go to Valandil, or not to go – to lay the problem before the captain, or not. Which would it be?

It was past dark, and Peloren sat slouched in a chair at The Oasis, musing into his whiskey. Should he bring this to Valandil, now he had proof? Or not? Or perhaps he should even go elsewhere – to Prince Adrahil? Or should he try Imrahil anyway, just for friendship's sake...? No, no, the terms were clear – it was Valandil or no one, surely! But the very thought was dizzying – or else the liquor was. Valar, I am lost! The young knight shut his eyes and leaned his head into his hand, listening to the stream of Haradric that swam about his ears.

Mhašo, mhašo! Ahna bel-ašetin – hašilan na bhila'an hurot.

Vharedayan ša, an khainišubel – ne? Amê!

Na, aišu! Cha, cha, cha! Hamei šo kha behanai – nai Hrikh-mešalu, ni – jhanuvan ša!

Uproarious laughter drowned the rest, so that Peloren, squinting through his lashes, could but see the swift flitting of hands in elegant pantomime, weaving among the folds of their sleeves, as the speaker brought his tale to a close. For his part, Peloren belched quietly, grimaced, and downed another long swallow of whiskey.

Hê jhani ur bhaji, ne? Oša'an farokha'at bhaji!” Glasses clinked in sharp unison, as men tapped them against the table, toasting in Haradric fashion, ere downing the contents, and one fellow lifted a hand, intoning in a sing-song voice:

Ašal-in ahi khibiran na- na hošai'a!

More laughter at that. Peloren made a face, shook his head. Thick, heavily accented, dialectical Ta'alsheen Haradric, all of it – nothing a well-born knight of Anfalas was schooled in, though he had tried a little, when in Elethil's company, or Imrahil's, to learn the way of it – if only a phrase or two.

Not that it helped. He watched as the jubilant teller of tales laid an arm about the shoulders of one of his fellows, grasped his hand and turned his face in to the hollow of the man's neck, shaking with laughter himself. Peloren bit his lip and gulped his drink, but kept his eyes straight on the pair, and on the circle of others, who chattered and laughed amongst themselves, exchanging who knew what gossip. Small merchants – grocers and fishmongers, he made them. Drunk, that, too, with the day's end and the taverner's strong brew, and Peloren, looking upon them, thought that if he were honest, he saw the mirror of several drunken nights he recalled, even if only barely.

And yet he could not see only that. They were Haradrim, after all. Maybe they were all married men, and maybe they would have none of each other but in honest and best friendship, and yet...

In their faces he saw the others, saw Andrahar standing ringed by his companions on Green Street. They had been less drunk, perhaps – almost certainly – and yet...

I was there with Tila'at and his family after the betrothal was agreed to. As mayhap these were here only to end the day, and yet...

Smiles shone in the lamplight, and voluble good humor, liberally laced with drink, shone in their eyes and animated chatter, and the press of them, their easy closeness with each other that might be nothing or everything indecent...

Why, he wondered with sudden irritation, did they have to laugh so? It upset everything, he felt obscurely. It didn't fit. Had they always been so? Peloren struggled to think back through the fog of overmuch liquor to other taverns, other nights with friends in Haradric houses. He couldn't recall, and it bothered him. Unsettled and exasperated, Peloren finished off his drink and raised his hand for another. Over by the hearth, a man with a Haradric khatar struck a chord, and then began crooning a song. It took Peloren 'til the chorus to realize he knew it: the tale of Asinyal and Khedara. Of course it was...

A glass filled with clear liquid appeared before him suddenly, and he frowned, leaning over it to sniff. What had he ordered...?

“It's water,” came the answer to his unasked question, and in a familiar voice. Peloren lifted his head to see Elethil standing there, frowning at him, and with no little perplexity, either.

“S'pposed to be whiskey,” he replied, just a touch petulantly.

“Yes, so I heard, among other things,” Elethil answered. Seating himself unasked by Peloren's side, his friend peered at him intently, ere inquiring: “Just how drunk are you?” Peloren waved a hand.

“It's fine. Just getting started.” Elethil, however, grimaced.

“Not by your breath!” the other replied, fanning the air before him. “Valar, Pel!”

“Eh. 'S fine.” Peloren shrugged, and slouched more heavily in his chair. He frowned at Elethil. “We s'pposed to meet?”

“No, I came for supper and to practice,” his friend replied.

“Mm.”

Na šahi, khuura daragha?” One of the taverner's lads appeared then, and Elethil, with a smile, answered in kind, laying a terce of copper crowns upon the table. The boy bobbed a bow and hurried off.

“Should order the whiskey,” Peloren opined.

“Can you say that I did not?” Elethil asked, and Peloren pursed his lips, shrugged a shoulder, acknowledging this point. His friend shook his head and pushed the glass of water into his hand. “Drink, Pel. And for Valar's sake, what are you doing here like this?”

Peloren lifted the glass, gesturing to himself, and sloshing a bit. “I,” he told him, “am... researching.”

“Researching what? The bottom of the whiskey jar?” Elethil demanded. Peloren shook his head.

“Impri- proprit... improper things,” he finally settled upon, to which Elethil's frown deepened.

“What under Varda's stars has got into you?” he muttered, and laid a hand firmly upon Peloren's wrist, giving him a little shake. “Pel, what is the matter?”

“Same 's last time,” Peloren sighed then, feeling suddenly and horribly sober. And when Elethil's brow knit further, he explained succinctly: “Andrahar.”

“What of him?” Elethil asked, sounding confused. And when Peloren did not immediately reply, said worriedly, “I thought you both got on well enough these past years...?”

Peloren waved that concern away. “Not that,” he said, but then fell silent, for drunk or no, some caution remained him still, or else distaste, as he stared past Elethil at the group of Haradrim, who were happily oblivious to his scrutiny. “What's the story?” he asked him, abruptly, nodding at them.

“What do they say, you mean?” Elethil glanced over his shoulder at the lot. After several moments, he shrugged. “'Tis some jest, I think. Something about the day's catch – not fish. Some comedy. Someone mistook someone mistook someone else... that sort of thing.” He turned back to Peloren. “Why?”

“Ends in bed, I wager,” Peloren said darkly.

“Likely. I've missed the main, I think, and – why does it matter, anyway?” a bewildered Elethil demanded, eyes darting about ere he lowered his voice to ask: “How does Andrahar enter into this?”

“Boy or girl?” Peloren persisted, ignoring the questions. Elethil blinked.

“Who?”

In answer, he gestured again toward the group. “The catch. And the catcher.”

“I... lads, at end, I think.” And in the face of Peloren's brooding malaise, his friend added, just a little more insistently than perhaps was called for: “'Tis a joke, Pel.”

“They think it good.”

“Evidently.” Elethil paused a moment. Then: “You make no sense, you know.”

“All is backwards here, that's why,” Peloren muttered. He pinned Elethil with an amazed and bleary stare. “How do they get so turned around, hm?” he demanded.

Elethil just sighed. “You are well and truly under tonight!” Peloren smiled grimly, lifted his glass in salute and downed it as if it were whiskey.

“They don't even notice,” he continued, and gestured to the room at large. “Look – not a flicker!” He shook his head, wonderingly, and folded his arms upon the table, leaning heavily upon them. “I mean, how does that happen? You look at them, and then you look at all humanity, and there's hart and hind, like in all the rest of the world, and it's not so hard, is it? Telling one from the other to want? How do they do it? And they laugh!”

Elethil, listening to this speech, cocked his head at his inebriated friend. “Pel, what are you telling me?” he asked, sounding somewhere between perplexed and incredulous. “Are you here to be bothered by... custom?”

“Somebody's to be.”

Elethil stared at him, then shook his head, like one who has taken a blow, and a very queer expression slid over his face. “And Andrahar's name comes into this... upset... because...?”

Peloren lowered his eyes to the tabletop, staring at the moist rings where cups had set. He traced one with a forefinger. “He laughs, too,” he said at length, and left it at that. Elethil looked troubled, but said only, after a moment:

“Well, why should he not? He is Haradric.”

“Aye, aye, he is,” Peloren sighed, running a hand back through his hair, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Valar, I will be sick tomorrow!”

“Doubtless. And yet, sickness will be kinder to you than Théorwyn!” A happy thought, that, and a whimper of a groan escaped Peloren. Elethil reached then and laid an arm about his shoulders, giving him a little squeeze. “Come, you've had enough, Pel,” he urged. “You'll do no good here.”

This time, Peloren made no speech nor protest, but wobbled to his feet, leaning on the shoulder Elethil offered. His friend caught a wrist and ducked under one arm, and he fumbled about with the other hand in his purse.

“Thank you, lad, but we are done here,” he told the serving lad who came back with supper just then. He dropped coins onto the platter, and gestured to the room at large. “Ša darbhredinet, khetto s'ha.

Cha,” the boy answered, bobbed another bow, and moved off, taking the platter with him to another table where two men sat close, speaking low and intently to each other. Peloren breathed in deeply and shut his eyes.

“Take me home, Elya,” he murmured.

“First sensible thing you've said this evening!” his friend declared, but then said, not without sympathy, “Come, then, lean on me. And here we go!”

It was a long walk back up to the keep, and by the time they made it to Peloren's room, Peloren had little eye for anything but the bed, and that barely. No sooner had Elethil deposited him there than he curled up like a sick pup, hanging his head over the edge.

“Should I send for a healer?” Elethil asked him, with a practiced hand positioning the chamber pot beneath him.

“No.”

A pause, then: “Shall I stay?”

“Nay.” Peloren waved a hand feebly. “Go sup.”

A sigh issued from above him in the dim light. But there were no footsteps, and despite the fuzziness of perception, Peloren had the impression of Elethil staring down at him. Finally:

“He did not – he did not approach you, did he? Andrahar, I mean.”

Upon hearing which, Peloren cracked a disgusted eye open. Seeing this, Elethil raised his hands in an appeasing gesture.

“No, of course not,” he said, swiftly abandoning the idea, though not his perplexity, as he pressed: “But then why...?”

Peloren attempted a shrug. “Someone has to,” he said faintly, and watched Elethil add up that answer with the others, and come to a rather queer conclusion, to judge by the look on his face. But his friend said nothing, just squeezed his shoulder, and said:

“Good-night, Pel.”

“'Night. Thanks.” But just ere the other reached the door, he called softly: “Elya.” And when the other paused, listening, he pleaded: “Say nothing. I'm drunk.”

There was a long silence, then: “Not a word.”

With that, Elethil departed, shutting the door quietly behind himself, leaving Peloren alone in the dark with an upset stomach and the same problem he had brought to the table hours ago. Shall I go to Valandil or not?

He had come to no decision when sleep finally overtook him.

~0~


The next day dawned predictably awful. The cock's crow dragged a bleary-eyed, sour-stomached, tender-headed Peloren from his bed with a start and a curse. But though he fell to and forced himself to begin the day, it was evident he had hamstrung himself – he could not possibly be trusted to ride herd upon a lot of pages, nor even upon such esquires as came into his care. Master Théorwyn took one look at him as he stumbled into the stables, and his expression assumed that flinty cast that had graced the final moments of no few orcs and Haradrim.

“'Tis a midweek morning, Peloren, or did you forget last night that the next rest day is three days hence?” he demanded, foregoing the usual pleasantries.

“No, sir,” Peloren answered over the pounding headache, and swallowed against nausea. “I am sorry, sir.”

“Not by half yet, you're not,” Théorwyn promised, with casual menace, then called: “Borlis!” A young man a few years Peloren's senior poked his head out of a stall.

“Sir?”

“You'll have Peloren's lads today, and I'll take yours.” Borlis glanced at Peloren, then nodded.

“Aye, sir.”

Théorwyn waved Borlis off, then eyed Peloren up and down and shook his head. “There, 'tis taken care of. Now get out of my sight and don't be caught in it again 'til you are sober!”

Peloren did not bother with so much as an “Aye, sir.” He simply bowed, managing by dint of sheer will to force himself upright without help, and then somewhat blindly did an about-face and made off down the aisle for the door.

He did not immediately return to his room, however. Instead, he went to the kitchens to beg some tea of the cooks. Fortunately, it being the breakfast hour for most in the keep, this was no great inconvenience, and one of the undercooks steered him to a table, put a mug full of tea before him and a small clay kettle of it at his side, and called for someone else to bring water.

“From the look of you, my lord, you'll be needing more than a cup of tea,” she said, not unkindly.

“My thanks, mistress,” he grunted, as he sipped at the brew.

“Well, just you be careful and don't spill any of that on yourself, or we'll have to fetch a healer to see to you,” she warned, then mercifully left him alone. Peloren shut his eyes and sipped his tea, and strove to shut out the world for some little while at least.

For I've got to clear my head, he thought desperately. What was I thinking last night anyway? What on earth had possessed him to drink that much, knowing he had duties this morning? And when the matter at hand was grave enough perhaps to cost a man his place in the Swan Knights, and all respect won over four years of hard-fought service?

Andrahar will be watching for you, too, he reminded himself. It might have taken the better part of a month to get the truth from him, but now that he'd given it, there was no doubt in Peloren's mind that the man would want an answer – would be seeking him out to have it and have done with all this, one way or the other.

And I have no answer to give! And so it helped not at all to have settled on Valandil, either. It was as if in gaining the truth and in choosing the judge, he had lost the will to continue – strange thing, when he had sought certainty and a direction all these past weeks, convinced that with them would come a clear path that he would have but to walk.

Yet for all that, he found himself reluctant to move the matter forward, and even the liberating effects of drink could not budge him. What is wrong with me? Peloren demanded of himself, as he sat amid the heat and steams of the kitchen, eyes shut, head in hand, the other hand laid over a mug of cooling tea, listening to the chatter of the cooks.

He was not sure how long he had been there when the head cook's voice sounded, directed to someone near the door.

“Here now, are you lost, lad?” she asked. “If it's breakfast you're looking for, you can follow one of the boys here to the hall and they'll see to you there.”

“I beg your pardon, mistress,” said the intruder. “But I'm not here for myself. I seek one Lord Peloren of Hathwyn, and was told he might have come here.”

At that, Peloren blinked and lifted his head, turning to look over his shoulder. There in the doorway to the kitchens stood a young man with a courier's badge upon his cote, and a leather purse in hand that bore the arms of Hathwyn embroidered upon it. The cook pointed the fellow in Peloren's direction after a moment's scrutiny, and Peloren made himself rise to the task of courtesy, standing to greet the other.

“My lord,” the courier said, and bobbed his head politely. His eyes went from Peloren's doubtless disheveled and weary appearance to the tea on the table, as he put two and two together. “I am sorry, my lord, to disturb you, but I was told I had to place this in your hands and have an answer back from you.”

“Let us have it, then,” Peloren replied, and held out his hand. The courier dropped the purse into it, then stood back a little, giving Peloren some privacy. Loosing the ties, Peloren withdrew a wallet, in which was a letter, addressed to him in his father's hand. He unfolded it and began reading...


Meanwhile, the courier, Mardis, stood nearby, but out of earshot. He might not have crossed the kingdom so often as some of his brethren, but he had seen the length and breadth of Gondor, and he knew to keep a little distance, that he might not overhear should a man or woman choose to read aloud, as so many folk did.

But the Lord of Hathwyn's son only cast his eyes over the page, and it seemed to Mardis that the man grew a little paler than even last night's ale – which apparently had been prodigious – could account for. After a little while, Peloren set the letter down and opened the wallet a little wider, withdrawing from it a plain, but heavy-banded silver circlet – a ring. He held it in the palm of his hand, staring at it a long moment, then looked up to find Mardis watching.

“Your pardon,” the courier apologized quickly, but the other waved it aside.

“You say that you were hired to bring this to me and take back my answer?” the rather white-faced young man asked.

“Aye, my lord.”

If it were possible, the other blanched still further. “Very well then,” he said. “I call you as a witness.” So saying, he then set the ring carefully upon his finger and held his hand up. “Tell my father I obey and thank him for his pains.”

“As you command, my lord,” Mardis replied, but hesitated. “Is that all?”

“It is.” Peloren carefully tucked the wallet and its letter back into the purse and hung it off his belt. Then picking up his tea cup, he finished its contents in a gulp and set it aside with a sudden grimace. “Pray excuse me – thank you, good sir, and Cook.”

And with that, he disappeared swiftly out the back.

“Bad news, by his face,” Mardis commented. The cook, who had come to collect the tea cup, and who now cradled it in her hands, looked after the departing young lord and murmured:

“And not for him only, I fear!”


~0~


In truth, Peloren's swift departure was not born only of anger or resentment or even shock, but last night's prediction of the consequences of overindulgence had struck at about the same moment the tea had hit his stomach. He had not made it all the way back to his own quarters before being forced to detour to the nearest garderobe. At least there he was alone with his misery, and during the next messy and abysmal quarter hour, he found plenty of time, between spasms, for self-recrimination.

Leaning both hands against the back wall for support, his head down over the seat, he waited out revulsion, head swimming and senses all areel. He wished briefly for Elethil, but then changed his mind – Elethil knew entirely too much to say nothing.

At length, he recovered enough to make his way back to his room, where he made himself drink another two glasses of water, then collapsed onto his bed and squeezed his eyes shut. At least his stomach felt better, but sleep eluded him. Staggered as he was by the morning's news, he kept stumbling upon the unknown to whom he was now bound by the ring on his finger, and sometimes it was a wife who looked back and sometimes it was a brother – Andrahar walked with him, as old and new bonds merged uneasily in his rather achy and befuddled head, and demanded answers he could not give. He couldn't even get another to give them for him:

Were I to go to Valandil like this, he'd throw me out! he thought. And if the Captain did not laugh, it would be only because he would be disgusted with him for making, if not light, then careless with his accusations. Courage that came in bottles was not the sort that won a man any accolades among Swan Knights, either. What was I doing last night?

What
were you doing? asked a voice that sounded like Elethil's, doubling up the question, and some part of Peloren's mind seized upon his friend like a lodestone, some half-known suspicion niggling at him from behind his friend's image. What were you doing there last night? An imaginary Elethil frowned at him and at the Haradrim, all gathered close and laughing to themselves, while in memory, Peloren got ever more thoroughly soused and desperate.

And he had nothing to show for it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing, said Elethil's image.

Which for some reason stuck with him, and when, some hours later, he rose and leaned one hand to either side of the little glass that hung upon his wall, he laid a finger over the reflection of his own mouth.

“Absolutely nothing,” he repeated, watching his lips move despite that prohibiting finger, movement mirrored twice over in the ring's silver. His hand fell then to his side, and he stared at his double, who seemed far more composed than he, and nodded slowly, watched it nod back, as if in accord with his own words – as if the words resolved things.

His temples ached still, and there was a bitter taste in his mouth, but he drew himself up then and tugged his cloak so it hung straight, smoothed the front of his tunic. The mirror could do only so much after all.

I need to see Andrahar.


~0~


The esquires of Dol Amroth did their sword- and lance-work in the morning and their studying most often in the afternoon, which meant that the Armsmaster and his assistants were one and all up before dawn, and 'twas not until the luncheon hour that they were able to breathe a moment before heading off to their own arms practices and drills.

The noon bells had just rung, and the last of the esquires were making their way off the fields, while their instructors gathered their own gear, when another of their knighted brethren, though not on duty, approached.

“Sergeant Andrahar.”

Andrahar, who had been frowning over a crack in the wood of one of the practice blades, looked up to see Peloren standing hard by. Dark eyes met grey ones, and the day seemed to cloud over a bit, but he answered civilly: “Yes, Peloren?”

“A word, if you would. In private.”

At that, Andrahar lowered the practice blade, and glanced back at the Armsmaster. Master Galdhros, who was undoing the ties on his gambeson, merely lifted a brow and nodded.

“I've nothing pressing to discuss that cannot wait until after lunch. Bring the rest of those – ” the Armsmaster indicated a couple of extra practice blades that were always brought along in case of mishap “ – back up to the armory when you are done.”

“Of course, sir,” Andrahar replied. Galdhros beckoned his other two assistants, one with a couple of staves, another bearing a pair of wooden, but padded, flails, and they hurried to join him, leaving Peloren and Andrahar alone on the field. Andrahar planted the tip of the damaged sword in the ground before his feet, leaning upon it slightly.

“What matter?” he asked Peloren.

“None other but the main,” Peloren replied, but no more. The silence drew out until at last, Andrahar pushed a hand back through sweaty hair and sighed.

“Then you will bring this to Valandil,” he concluded.

“Perhaps.” Andrahar's expression darkened at that.

“'Perhaps'?” he repeated. Then, much more sharply: “Do you toy with me?”

“No.” Andrahar did not appear convinced by this, and so Peloren laid his hand over his breast and said: “By my oath and honor, I swear that I do not.”

That, at least, seemed to mollify the other a little, though he remained wary. “What would you, then?” he demanded. Peloren considered him a moment.

“Have you a dagger?” he asked, even as he moved to where the spare blades were set, and spying a pair of wooden daggers in amongst them, stooped to pick them up, testing their balance.

“Are you asking for a duel to settle this?” Andrahar sounded almost relieved, and Peloren felt a flash of indignation at the implication that that ought to settle matters in the other's favor. But when he glanced back at him, Andrahar did not seem amused, nor scornful – merely thoughtful.

“Practice blades only,” he told the other, and watched confusion wash over the other's face.

“What use are they?”

“Plenty, since this is not a duel.” He hefted the daggers, one in each hand. “Which do you want?”

Andrahar closed his eyes a moment, seeming to struggle to rein in his temper. Then he opened them again, considered his choices, and pointed to the blade in Peloren's left hand. “That one.”

Peloren obliged him, lobbing the blade to him. Andrahar caught it, tossing the other aside. He gave his chosen weapon a quick spin and then looked at his opponent. Peloren nodded, and on unspoken accord, the two of them moved a little further into the field, leaving the spare weapons behind.

Finding a patch of grass that suited them, they saluted each other, as the salle's etiquette required, and then fell easily into their stances, Peloren taking a high guard, and Andrahar, for a wonder, taking a very conservative, defensive guard. Two strikes, Peloren hastily revised his opening gambit – and then moved!

His first strike, aimed at the other's face, was blocked, but his second nearly got through. Andrahar was quick, however: his counter-thrust stopped it, and came close to landing a solid hit itself. Peloren managed to turn and slide his left arm between himself and the dagger aimed at his chest, barely diverting the blow. That left him open, however, and his opponent wasted no time: Andrahar landed a sharp jab to his kidneys, and Peloren staggered. But he threw his right elbow against the other's chest, stepping into that blow, and then stabbed downward.

Andrahar, though, dodged back, moving with him and away. That gave Peloren space to turn. Black eyes fixed upon him as the two of them took a moment to regroup. Neither spoke during that brief pause, before Andrahar attacked again. Peloren backed, dodged, then reversed, blocked the next blow and moved into his foe, slashing at him. Andrahar caught him and tried to turn his attack back against him, but Peloren slammed his left hand into the other's solar plexus. His opponent slapped his wrist downward, but not hard enough; he recoiled with a rather gratifying gasp, which let Peloren pull himself free.

When he tried, however, to take advantage and stab his opponent, Andrahar blocked, stepped in and grabbed the back of Peloren's knee and yanked, sending him tumbling down onto his back. It was his turn to gasp as he took the brunt of the fall hard across his shoulders, and then wince when Andrahar leaned hard on his knife-arm, pinning it. Andrahar's dagger flashed above him; Peloren got his left hand up to block Andrahar's strike, which jarred from wrist to shoulder, and with a snarl, on pure impulse, he retaliated, punching him in the face.

A khai'ivora!” Andrahar swore, and then swore again when Peloren took advantage of the moment to roll them both. There followed a brief, undignified scuffle that undoubtedly broke several of the rules of polite combat among friends and allies, but once upon the ground, Peloren had the advantage in weight and reach, and he used it. It did not spare him the bruising, but he did finally get the lock he needed on Andrahar's right arm, and the two of them ended up nearly nose to nose, with Peloren's left arm locked about Andrahar's right, pinning it safely between their bodies, and his own blade laid across his opponent's throat.

For a time, neither of them moved, just lay there breathing hard, regarding each other distrustfully and tensing at every twitch. Finally, though, Peloren lifted his blade a few inches, and like a seam come undone, they parted, releasing each other to sit up. Peloren winced as he did, straightening carefully; Andrahar pressed the back of one hand against a bruised cheek, and frowned at the blood that came away from a small gash there. He glanced at Peloren, who felt himself flush.

“I'm sorry,” he apologized, hastily fishing about in his scrip for a handkerchief, which he offered his opponent.

Andrahar raised a brow, but he did accept the handkerchief. “That is new,” he remarked, nodding at the bloodied ring upon Peloren's finger.

“The more reason I should have thought to remove it,” he sighed.

To that, Andrahar said nothing, only rose to his feet. Jamming the practice dagger through his belt, he made his way over to the damaged wooden sword and scooped it up, then moved to collect the other two from the ground, tucking them under one arm.

Returning then to Peloren, he stood over him a moment, then drew the handkerchief back, grimacing a little. But he shook it out, managed to fold it over itself one-handed – once, then twice – and he held it out to Peloren, who received it back, replacing it in his scrip. And he looked up to find Andrahar's hand, open, outstretched, still before him. A little hesitantly, and keeping his eyes firmly upon the other's face, he took it and let Andrahar help draw him to his feet. The other did not immediately release him, however.

“You have had your fight,” he said; “What of the rest?”

“That depends. Were you satisfied with it?” Peloren asked. Andrahar snorted.

“Of course not!” he retorted, with just a little heat. “I should not have let that strike unsettle me.”

“I meant with me,” Peloren clarified quickly. “Were you satisfied?”

Andrahar looked him up and down, frowning, pausing on the hands still clasped between them. That bemused and thoughtful air descended once more and it was a cooler gaze that settled at length upon his face as Andrahar met his eyes again.

“I'll own you did not shrink to close,” he replied. Peloren shut his eyes a moment, then nodded, pressed Andrahar's hand once and harder, then released him as he reopened his eyes.

“Then we'll go no further,” he told the other.

“Because you can close with me?” Andrahar seemed confused. Peloren shrugged.

“Because we keep close quarters among ourselves and though no one will ask if I do not share a tent or tub with you, if I cannot keep these quarters, then men will ask why.”

“And this – ” a gesture traced the little distance between them “ – stands for all others?”

Once more, Peloren shrugged. “Why not? I tried myself last night, watching a company of merchants down in The Oasis,” he told him, as they began slowly walking back towards the city and the keep. “Ended up right well soaked and sick, even.”

Andrahar's jaw clenched at that. “Tell me,” he said flatly, “that you did not decide anything from the bottom of a barrel!”

“No. That was the trouble – it made nothing of anything,” he said, and smiled a little at the other's evident incomprehension. Not that he blamed him. He had hardly been transparent to himself! “Elethil was right,” he admitted, and explained: “He thought I had gone there to be offended, you see.”

This time, it was a frankly disbelieving look that Andrahar turned upon him, and his hand shot out to grab Peloren's arm, forcing him to stop and face him. “Do not,” he said, “tell me that you were not!”

“I shan't,” he assured him. “For I did not like what I saw, for all that I am not entirely certain what I saw.” Honest admission that, and though he could tell Andrahar did not much care for it, he thought he saw just a glimmer of grudging respect flicker in those dark eyes, as he continued: “And I do not like the knowledge you gave me. But it was not enough. Even drink could not make it enough, since I could not answer your question.”

Andrahar's expression did not change, but there was a perceptible lessening of tension, and his grip slackened, fell away. “Then I thank you for your consideration of me,” he said quietly.

“Just tell me one thing more – you are not also seeking to gain a night's favor with some man's daughter, are you?”

This time, Andrahar gave a soft bark of laughter. “That rumor! Hardly,” he said, with no little contempt, though he tempered it but a moment later. “Though I'll not deny it has served me well enough to have you think that.” He cocked his head up at Peloren, and an unfamiliar curiosity lit upon his countenance. “Does that worsen me in your eyes?”

Does it? Peloren considered the question, and his own ambivalent feelings a moment, lowering his gaze. Was it worse or better to know that Andrahar, with no interest in women, had been quite content to let them all imagine him the loose-laced rakehell where they were concerned? Peloren found himself twisting the new ring upon his finger, and he sighed.

“I did not like you very well last night. And then this morn, I got a ring.” He paused, then: “You said once you would not lie in some lass's bed of silver.” Peloren grimaced as he folded his hands behind his back, raising his eyes once more. “Well, I will – and I'll say before witnesses that I'm pleased, too, since that is what is expected.”

“Then you will be the dutiful son of your father,” Andrahar replied after a moment; “And faithful to your wife.” And even as his voice was, was that the faintest hint of envy...? Ere Peloren could remark upon it, however, Andrahar lifted a hand in one of his inimitable Haradric gestures that seemed to say “So be it,” and then tipped his head toward the city walls. “I've arms practice in an hour.”

Peloren nodded, and the two of them resumed their course. The climb back up to the keep and the armory was silent. Andrahar returned the gear to its proper place, setting aside the damaged sword to be dealt with later. By then, lunch was winding down, and there was no time to wash up, so rather than go to the hall, the two of them stopped again at the kitchen.

Andrahar's face garnered a few clucks of concern from the cooks, who pressed lunch upon both of them, though the two knights declined the offered table, given their rather grassy, dirty state, contenting themselves with washing their hands before settling on the stoop to lunch.

They ate quickly, not pausing to speak. With the cooks nigh, and an open yard that anyone might enter unheralded, it was evidently impossible to speak further on private matters, and in truth, Peloren felt no particular desire to do so, unsure where such talk might lead or end. Perhaps Andrahar felt likewise, beneath his prudence – who knew?

But as the bells began to toll the first hour past noon, Andrahar asked: “What will you do now?”

Peloren tore off a morsel of bread and ran it round the inside of the bowl, contemplatively mopping up the stew that clung to the sides. “I suppose I shall take to the practice grounds, and find Master Théorwyn, so he can decide how best to thrash me for this morning. Mayhap that will sweeten his temper a little.”

Andrahar raised a skeptical brow. “You believe that will make him more disposed to mercy?”

“No, but if I do not appear, then the next month will be truly vile.” So saying, he popped the bit of bread into his mouth, wiped his hands off and rose. “Shall we?”

They left their dishes with a page and began making their way back to the armory and the stables beyond the keep's inner wall. Peloren found himself anxious, and not only for the impending interview with Théorwyn, but out of a need somehow to close the matter between him and Andrahar. Yet how?

He still had not discovered the means when the two of them reached the stables. But as they turned down the row where Lightfall and Bhraina were kept, two familiar figures glanced up from what seemed urgent conversation, Elethil pausing mid-gesture. Aldan, for his part, looked relieved to see them both more or less in one piece, though he frowned a little when he saw Andrahar's face.

“Pel, Andrahar,” Elethil greeted them, as his eyes, too, went to the cut and bruising. To his credit, he said only: “You were missed at lunch.”

Without missing a beat, Andrahar cocked his head, and asked: “Is somewhat the matter?”

Elethil glanced swiftly from him to Peloren, then back, and did some diplomatic sums, ere he answered smoothly: “Nothing pressing, I think.” He paused a moment, then: “I don't suppose we could have a brief word, though, Pel?”

Peloren shrugged. “If you like,” he said, though he glanced over at Andrahar as he said it. “I'll be a little while, I expect...”

Andrahar, who was saddling Bhraina, straightened up, laying one hand upon his mount's neck, and hooking the other into his belt. “Go ahead,” he told Peloren, hesitating just a moment, ere he added: “We can speak later, over supper at Three Winds.”

Peloren hoped his jaw was not hanging open. Certainly, he found himself unable, for a moment to speak, and perhaps Andrahar took that as revulsion, for he was quick to add: “If you wish, that is.”

“I would. I do,” Peloren hastened to say, “but Master Théorwyn – ”

Andrahar shook his head, dismissing the problem. “I've that practice session tonight. I'll ask for you – I can always use another pell!” he said dryly. “But afterward...”

“Afterward,” Peloren agreed, quickly. Andrahar nodded, then quietly turned back to the task of harnessing his horse. Peloren stood watching him a moment, before he moved to join Elethil and Aldan near Aldan’s stall.

“Is everything all right?” Elethil asked quietly. Peloren pursed his lips a bit, gently rubbing at that ring.

“Well, I’m betrothed,” he replied, heavily, and Aldan laid a sympathetic hand upon his shoulder. Peloren gave him a half-smile. Elethil, however, was not so easily reassured, or diverted.

“And the rest? I thought you had had some falling out with Andrahar...?” He trailed off. This required a more careful answer, and Peloren dithered a moment, but then shrugged with a diffidence he hoped would be convincing.

“What matter now? ‘Tis done with, and we understand each other – think no more on it, Elya,” he replied.

“You’re certain?” Elethil pressed.

“Aye, I am. If you’ve a mind to worry, though, you might spare some for the Horsemaster’s designs on me,” he said, stiffening a bit as he saw Master Théorwyn appear by the stable doors. Nor was he alone in that observation – Andrahar hailed him, and moved swiftly to join him, speaking in a low voice with the Master of Horses.

“And you really plan to have supper with Andrahar after he helps Théorwyn pummel you properly for arriving on duty drunk?” Aldan asked, sounding somewhere between bemusement and merriment.

“Aye.”

“Should've saved your cups for that,” his friend opined.

“If I had, there would not be an 'after that' to entertain you with,” Peloren replied, but then gave Aldan a slight smile. “Besides, I have other things to do tonight that go ill with the bottle.”

“Such as?”

“Attending to expectations,” Peloren said, a little cryptically, and then took advantage of Théorwyn's call, and crooked finger, to excuse himself. “Lunch, tomorrow,” he promised, and then wished them: “Good day, lads.”


~0~



November days ended early, the shadows stretching out their fingers to close over the land. In the harbor, men retreated to taverns and their homes and shut out the wind that heralded the deepening cool of winter; weary esquires staggered in from the fields to wash and sup before burning their candles over books in the library. Down in South Docks, two men sat down in a tavern over dinner and a game of chess, and played 'til the moon set.

Later, a lamp flared to life in a small room in the keep of Dol Amroth, and its owner set it upon a desk just so. He laid out pen and paper, settled himself astride his chair, and stared at the band upon his finger that winked silver in the lamplight. Then he dipped his pen, bent his head, and scribed carefully:

November 5, 2980.

Father,

I hope this letter finds you well, and that you will forgive the shortness of the courier's first message. It was but the answer duty required, and I will own I was unprepared to give more than that.

I am told, though, that happiness is a matter of expectations, and you have said Baraniel is a gracious woman. Tell her, then, that I should like to learn from her a little of herself, and perhaps she would care to learn something of Dol Amroth or of me.

Time is short ere we must meet, yet I hope I may hear from her soon, before I return to Hathwyn. Tell her this for me, please, and give my love to mother, and to Gilandir and his wife.

I remain, as ever, your faithful,

Peloren


~~~

Author's Note: Peloren, Andrahar, Elethil, and Théorwyn are used with Isabeau's permission. Thanks, Isabeau, for reading a couple of early first drafts. I think I have it all together now, including that bit in the middle.

Thanks also to Dawn Felagund and Mr. Felagund for their helpful discussion of scimitars, and how to wield them on foot. Hopefully, this is not-too-implausible.


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