The afternoon passed much as the morning had. Brand and Serl were kept hard at work, as were the other stable boys. The very courtyard itself was swept and the cobbles washed in preparation for the arrival of the Swan Knights. Dinas and a couple of the older lads were set to the cow byre, from which much grumbling ensued. Serl’s sister waved at him once from one of the upstairs windows while the boys were sweeping the courtyard, but she was immediately called away, which led the boys to understand that things were probably equally hectic indoors. Things were completed by the fourth hour after noon, which was just as well, for no sooner had Morlan done a tour of inspection, when a sound of many hooves was heard up the street, and men’s voices raised in song.
“They’re early!” the stableman exclaimed; then, looking about, smiled with satisfaction. “But so are we! Well done, lads!” Quickly, he set some of the lads in the courtyard, and others in the barn. Gesturing to Serl and Brand, he assigned them the part of the barn that had the few box stalls.
“You two--take care of the officers’ horses.” The boys looked at each other and grinned, for this was another sign of Morlan’s appreciation of the work they’d done. They’d been told not to expect tips, but officers would be more likely than any to give them. The other boys knew this as well, and there was considerable petulance in some quarters.
“Shouldn’t put the bastard up where the fine folk’ll see him,” Dinas complained to Morlan. That’s the place for one of us older fellows.” The head man snorted.
“I get more honest work from that ‘bastard’ than I do from any of you ‘older fellows‘, and in any event, your place is where I say it is--which is helping with the wagon teams.” Dinas gave Brand a threatening look, which the younger boy ignored. Dinas was as slow on his feet as in his head, and Brand had no doubt about his ability to keep clear of the young man. And he’d attempt nothing under Morlan’s watchful eye in any event, so Brand hastened off to his assigned post with a light heart, peering back through the barn door with his friend as the Swan Knights began to pour into the courtyard.
Grey horses of every shade, from the snowy white of older war-horses to the charcoal of younger ones. Some with black manes, tails and points, others with silver. Dappled and frosted, speckled and smoky, each one different, but each one very fine. All in black harness trimmed with silver, their riders in shining mail and armor plate, the silver Swanship of Dol Amroth broidered in white or silver upon their tabards, depending upon their rank. How they managed to appear reasonably clean after a day on the road was beyond Brand, but he assumed it was some secret of the trade known only to Swan Knights.
“They’re wonderful, aren’t they?” breathed Serl, and Brand could only nod his agreement.
Two of the knights, who wore the fanciest tabards, immediately rode to the porch of the inn to speak to the innkeeper, while others, presumably subordinate officers, directed the wagons and the rest of the knights towards stabling. Despite the large number of people crowding the courtyard, things were being done in an orderly and organized fashion. Brand noticed one small group in the keeping of one of the officers who seemed younger than the rest and ill at ease, in plainer tabards, and it took him a moment to realize that these must be the most junior of the knights, perhaps brand new recruits. Most of them looked to be about eighteen, but a couple were older, and he felt a moment’s burning jealousy. What he would not have given to change places with any of them….The old saw about wishes being horses came to mind, and he sighed, turning his attention back to his work.
“C’mon Serl--let’s go give things a last look-over before they get in here.”
Quickly, the two boys made their way down the row of box stalls, inspecting their work and giving the bedding a quick fluffing with their forks. No one came in their barn--apparently, the officers were seeing to the well-being of their men first. Serl was in the last of the box stalls, and Brand had started on the first of the tie stalls, when a spate of shouted orders and cries arose outside. The boys paid no attention to the noise, thinking it only part of the usual business of organizing such a large number of men and horses. Then a shadow darkened the doorway.
Brand looked up and froze. One of the war stallions had apparently broken free from its master’s grasp, and stood there, stamping nervously, its ears laid flat against its head. Serl stuck his head up over the partition and gasped, and the horse’s head immediately snaked in his direction. A squeal issued forth from the stallion, and he bounced, his shod feet clanging on the paved aisle of the stable.
A bad’un, the worst I’ve ever seen, Brand thought in dismay. Three years as a stable boy had exposed him to a great many cantankerous horses, but this one, he realized, was genuinely dangerous. His voice when he spoke to his friend, however, surprised even himself with its calmness.
“Serl, get down and stay down where he can‘t see you. I’m going to get his attention. When I do, you pull your door shut and keep down. He can’t get at you in there.” It was not the best of plans--the door was heavy and there was the chance that Serl might not be able to close it quickly enough, and would end up trapped inside with the stallion. But Brand thought it safer than the alternative of the small boy trying to escape past the vicious horse in the aisle.
“What’s he doing in here?” Serl gasped.
“Must’ve got loose,” Brand answered, keeping a watchful eye upon the stallion, who continued to stamp and snake his head in a very menacing manner. He could hear the sound of men running towards the stables. “Remember that saddle mare that left at noon? I thought she was in season. Bet she pissed in here and he’s smelling it. She was up at the far end, so you just do as I say, and I bet he’ll go up there in a minute. He does, and I‘ll shut him in. Get ready--here I go.”
He tapped the pitchfork against the wall of the stall, and the stallion’s attention turned to him. He made his voice as soft and soothing as possible. “Hist now, lad, what do you want to be getting into such a taking for? Looking for a lady friend?” The warhorse bounced once more, and scented the air, his upper lip curling up. He bugled, and there were answering bugles from outside. A noise of rustling emanated from the other stall, and Serl’s arm poked up over the edge of the door. The stallion’s head swiveled in that direction for a moment, but Brand rapped the pitchfork against the stall, hard, and cried out, commandingly.
“Hoi, now! Over here, you whoreson!” A white-rimmed eye rolled back to him. With a gasping cry, Serl took the opportunity to yank the door shut, and the warhorse lunged at it in frustration, hooves thudding against the wood with brutal force. The door held, but afraid that it might bounce back open, Brand ventured forward a couple of steps and gave the stallion a light poke with the pitchfork around the corner. In doing so, he got a glimpse of Serl’s hand, curled under the lower edge of the door, holding it shut, while the other lad made himself as small as he could on the ground behind it. Brand also narrowly missed having his extended arm crushed by a set of long yellow teeth, as the horse snapped viciously at him, then skittered back a pace.
If I can just hold him a couple more moments, the Swan Knights will get here and take him in hand, he thought desperately. The stallion not only moved in a snake-like way, he struck as quickly as any serpent, with hooves as well as teeth. A couple of tiny rivulets of blood were running down the horse’s nearly white shoulder, where the prongs of the fork had pierced the skin, and Brand quailed inwardly at the sight of the damage. Surely they will understand I didn’t have a choice! “Go on up the aisle, you bastard!” he muttered to the stallion. “Go sniff out the mare’s scent and leave me alone!”
Other shadows appeared in the doorway--men, ducking to either side of the stallion, whose hind hoof lashed out, narrowly missing one of them. I’m saved! Brand thought, vastly relieved. The stallion turned his head to snap at the man upon his right side, but just as the knight upon his left grabbed for the trailing reins, he slung his head back around, screamed and lunged at the stable boy, plunging into the narrow stall after him.
Brand staggered back, with no place to go, trying desperately to dodge teeth and hooves. Reflexively, he held the fork up--and the stallion ignored it and kept coming. He was slammed against the back wall of the stall, the breath driven out of him, teeth snapping by his ear. The end of the pitchfork handle grounded against the back wall for a moment before the handle splintered beneath the force of the warhorse’s charge, and pain lanced into the boy’s arm and side.
He’s killed me! Brand thought; then the stallion was staggering back, the pitchfork with its broken handle stuck in his chest. And I’ve killed him as well! The knight on the horse’s left had finally seized the reins and was hauling him back, cursing in a strange mixture of Westron, and what Brand thought might be Haradric, but he paused long enough to give the other knight an order.
“See to the boy, Liahan.” The other knight stooped over Brand, who had slid down the wall to sit upon the straw. His commander was backing the staggering stallion out of the stall, and eventually got him moved out of the barn and back into the courtyard, talking to the horse softly in a deep voice that both cursed and coaxed. Liahan was a younger man than the commander, and his handsome face creased in concern as he saw the blood on Brand‘s shirt. He laid a light hand upon the stable boy’s shoulder.
“Stay still, lad. Don’t try to get up. You’re a tall fellow, but there’s not much meat on your bones yet. I’ll carry you within, and we’ll have our healer take a look at you.”
Brand nodded shakily. The Swan Knight stooped and slid a careful arm beneath his shoulders upon his uninjured side and the other beneath his knees, and lifted him with only a soft grunt of effort. With the stallion gone out of the barn, Serl cracked the door of the other stall open, and peered out.
“Brand, are you all right? Brand!” he exclaimed when he saw his friend in the Swan Knight’s arms. Liahan smiled at him.
“Where you in here as well, lad?” Serl nodded. “Were you injured?”
“No sir,” came the reply, little louder than a whisper. “Brand there kept ‘im off me so I could get the door closed.”
“That was well done, don’t you think?” the Swan Knight asked, his voice low and comforting. The stable-boy nodded again, looking at Brand with stricken eyes. “Are you a friend of his?” After the third nod, Liahan suggested, “Why don’t you come with us then? I’m sure Brand--didn’t you say that was his name?--would feel better if you were at his side.” He started out of the barn, Serl at his heels, and after a swift look about the courtyard, quickened his stride.
“Don’t look, lad,” he murmured, so of course Brand did, peering over his shoulder to see the stallion, the broken pitchfork lying upon the ground before him, blood pouring down his chest. The knight who’d pulled the horse off Brand was one of the commanders, it seemed, a man whose ink black hair was streaked with white. He had a hand upon the wound, and was talking to the other commander, who was holding the stallion’s head. When he finally shook his head, and drew his sword, Brand squeezed his eyes shut, but the boy could still hear the thunk of the blade severing flesh, a gurgling, whistling sound, and the thud of a large body onto the cobbles.
I’ve killed one of the Swan Knights’ warhorses! came his despairing thought. His troubles with the tanner suddenly seemed pale in comparison. What will they do with me? Throw me into prison to work off the price of the horse? I’ve heard warhorses are worth hundreds of gold pieces! The tanner already owned me for seven years--I shall never be free again my whole life! For one panicked moment, he thought about wrenching free from the Swan Knight’s arms, and bolting out of the courtyard, running as far and as fast as he could. But something within him found that idea unpalatable. His innate pride, which so often got him into trouble with his stepfather, would not let him do other than to own up to his actions. So he sighed a tremulous sigh, and tried to relax in the knight’s strong arms.
Liahan carried him swiftly into the inn. Thurfyn, the innkeeper, met him at the door, grey-faced and stammering, and a sound of running footsteps announced Morlan’s arrival behind them.
“My lord,” the innkeeper exclaimed, “I apologize for the loss of the horse! I did not see what happened, but the lads who were at fault are, of course, yours to punish as you will.” Serl looked as if he would like to bolt himself when this statement was made, but he found the doorway blocked by Morlan, who seized his arm.
Liahan pushed past the innkeeper without pausing to explain, carrying the boy into what looked to be one of the inn‘s private parlors. Certainly, Brand had never seen the inside of this room before. What looked to be one of the tables from the common room had been set up inside, with a sheet laid upon it. A young man was sitting in a tall-backed upholstered chair, shirtless, while another rather saturnine young man wearing a white apron over a jerkin of Dol Amroth blue but no armor bent over him taking a cup from his hand.
“Give it a few minutes to work, Badhron, and then I’ll set you to rights.” The other Swan Knight, if such he was, closed his eyes and nodded very slightly. There was a massive bruise upon his upper chest.
“Cuilast?” Liahan called urgently, “I’ve got another for you!” Seeing the blood, the aproned young man hastened over.
“Set him up here on the table and let’s have a look, Liahan. My, but it’s turning out to be a busy day. Rahur again?” Liahan carried Brand to the table and set him upon it.
“Yes,” the knight answered. “But he shan’t be giving any more trouble--the Captain just put him down.”
“About time,” snorted the healer. “That horse was a menace.”
“How’s Badhron?” Liahan inquired.
“Broken collarbone. I just gave him a draught. Stay a while, won’t you? I’m going to need help setting it in a few minutes. Innkeeper!” This was addressed to Thurfyn, who was hovering anxiously in the doorway. “I‘ll need a pot of hot water--see that it boils for a bit before you take it off the fire. And some more towels or cloths. They must be very clean.”
“I’ll see to it, my lord!” Thurfyn stammered and scampered away.
“Get me my scissors, will you, Liahan?” the healer asked, giving Brand an appraising look. The Swan Knight moved to a wooden case with many drawers that was set up on the table at the man’s head, and brought the scissors back to the healer, who slit Brand’s shirt up the middle and both sleeves and had it off of him in what seemed a split second. Brand made a protesting noise at the ruin of one of his few garments, though the blood had arguably ruined it already, and the healer, seeming to understand his concern, smiled.
“We’ll find you another, lad, never you fear.”
It seemed an unnecessarily kind thing to say to someone who was supposedly in trouble of the deepest, darkest sort, and the boy stared back at him, confused. Then he looked down at himself and gulped. Black spots started dancing on the edges of his vision. There was an awful lot of blood….
“Oh no you don’t!” Cuilast exclaimed, seeing his face go pale and clammy. “Let‘s lay him back on the table, Liahan.” The Swan Knight lifted Brand’s legs onto the table and lowered him back.
“What happened to you, lad?” the healer asked. “You’ve got splinters in your arm here.”
“’T’was the handle of the pitchfork sir,” Brand replied in a voice that quavered slightly because of his sudden nausea. He closed his eyes, deeming that the wisest course of action since the room persisted in spinning about him. “It broke when the horse came at me--I didn’t mean to stab him, sir, truly I didn’t!”
“Oh, Brand lad, you’ve gotten yourself into a deal of trouble,” Morlan said grimly. “How could you do such a thing? Surely sticking a pitchfork in the horse was not necessary!”
“Actually it was, hostler,” said a new, deep voice, as another man entered the room. Brand knew that voice, it belonged to the commander who’d just killed the stallion. “I was there, and I saw what happened. The boy was not at fault, he was merely doing what he could to defend himself. And he did not so much stick the fork in the horse, as the horse threw himself upon it. My late warhorse was an animal of remarkably foul disposition--look what he did to poor Badhron here, and him a trained knight! ’Tis I who owe the boy an apology--I thought Badhron could hold Rahur, and I was mistaken.”
“But what of this lad?” Morlan asked, giving Serl’s shoulder a shake. Liahan replied before Brand could come to his friend‘s defense.
“He did naught wrong either, other than to wisely hide himself in a stall. Release him, good hostler, the lad’s been frightened half to death.” Morlan did so, giving Serl’s shoulder an apologetic pat. “You might want to take him to the kitchen and get him some supper,” the young Swan Knight suggested. “I find a good meal helps heal a young boy’s fright faster than almost anything.”
“But what about Brand?” Serl asked plaintively. “You said he would feel better if I stayed with him!”
“The healer needs to see to him now, and I don’t think you want to be here while he does that,” came the knight’s gentle response. “You may check back with us after you’ve had gotten some food in you.” Morlan urged a reluctant Serl out of the room.
“He kept him off me, I’ll have you know!” was the boy’s last declaration, as he was taken down the hall.
“Did he now?” The commander asked no one in particular, settling onto the bench next to Liahan on the opposite side of the table from the healer. His next question was addressed to Cuilast.
“How bad is he?” Brand could feel the healer’s hands moving over his body, checking his limbs and chest and belly.
“Give me a moment, and I’ll tell you. I’m sorry lad, but I have to do this,” he said by way of warning, and then pressed upon Brand’s injured side, right over his wound. The boy gasped, and jerked, and Liahan’s hands moved to his shoulders of a sudden, holding him still.
“Sorry, lad,” Cuilast said again, and there was more pain, as he examined the wounds in his arm and side further. Brand could feel something being pulled from his arm, and a tear trickled from his still tightly shut eyes; he made a sound deep in his throat, but that was all the noise that escaped him. A sword-calloused hand patted his cheek gently.
“Stout lad,” murmured Liahan. “Well, Cuilast?” came the captain’s deep voice once more.
“Patience, captain!” the healer chided as he finished his examination. “The lad is not so badly hurt--he can wait until I finish with Badhron. He’s got some splinters in his arm from the handle, and it’s torn a strip of flesh loose on his side. There are some splinters there as well. But there are no broken bones, and some careful cleaning and stitching should set him to rights. I’ll give him some poppy now, and he should be ready by the time I’m done setting Badhron’s collarbone. Can you watch him for a bit, make sure he doesn‘t roll off the table?”
“As it was my horse that injured him, it would be churlish to refuse,” the captain replied. “Besides, Peloren is attending to things outside. Though I thought Liahan had matters well enough in hand here.”
“He does, but I need him to help me with Badhron. He’s more than half a healer himself, you know.”
“Yes, Liahan does a great many things well,” came the dry response. “Very well then, I’ll tend the boy.” The captain took Brand’s left hand, the one attached to the uninjured arm, and gave it a small squeeze.
“You still with us, lad?”
Brand opened his eyes hesitantly, afraid both of becoming sick again and of confronting the man whose horse he had caused to be slain. The captain’s face was severely handsome, despite his age, with a hawkish nose and skin that was either very tanned or darker than the rest of his fellow knights, and his eyes looked absolutely black. But they were not angry or unkind, and the boy was heartened enough to whisper a response.
“Yes, sir. I am sorry about your horse. Did you hold him dear?”
“He had been with me for a long time, and got me alive through the battle on the Pelennor and many other conflicts,” the captain said matter-of-factly. “But he was never a pleasant mount, and of such vile temperament that the Prince would never use him as a stud, for all his strength and speed. When I returned home, I was going to have him cut and retired--he was getting too old for war.” He smiled, a small smile fraught with irony. “The stable-boys at Dol Amroth would bless your name should they learn what passed here this day.”
Brand did not know quite how to answer that, and was spared the necessity of doing so, for the healer was offering him a cup.
“Here, Brand, drink all of this down. I’ve put the medicine in some cherry cordial, so it won‘t taste too bad.”
“What is it, sir?”
“It will make you sleep, while I put some stitches in you. That way you won’t feel a thing.” Brand liked the idea about not feeling a thing very much, but a look out the window at the darkening courtyard raised other apprehensions in him.
“How long will I sleep sir?”
“Several hours, in all likelihood,” the healer said. “Why? Is there a problem?”
The boy struggled to sit back up, wincing at the pain in his side. “I can’t sleep for hours! I have to get home right after dark, or my stepfather will slam me a good one!” Or I have to start running soon after dark, if I am to get away. The captain grasped his chin gently, and turned his head to look at Brand’s bruised cheek and eye.
“Did your stepfather do this to you?” When the boy nodded, the already black eyes somehow grew darker yet.
“Yes, sir. He told me this morning he’d ‘prenticed me to a tanner, and I was to start working for the tanner on the morrow. Tomorrow I’m twelve. I told him I wanted to be a soldier instead.”
“You’re too young to be a soldier yet.”
“I know that, sir. That’s why he didn’t want me to be one--said he didn‘t want to feed me for four more years. He was wanting a new team of horses, and the fee the tanner paid him would help him get them.” Brand’s head drooped and he closed his eyes again for a moment. “I have to work for the tanner for seven years. When I’m done with that, I’ll be too old to start training as a soldier.”
“Not necessarily,” murmured Liahan. “Many of the Prince’s foot are that age or but little younger when they come to us.”
“Though why you would wish to enlist after spending seven years learning a profitable trade is beyond me,” the healer interjected. Looking up at the friendly faces about him, Brand decided there was little harm in revealing his dearest wish.
“But I do not want to be a foot-soldier. I want to be a Swan Knight.” The captain cocked an eyebrow, and the other two men smiled. Despite this encouragement, Brand‘s face fell again. “Though my stepfather told me that you do not take base-born lads.”
“Your stepfather was in error,“ the healer declared, his voice positively chirpy. “I have not known bastardy, either as a condition of birth or description of temperament, to be an impediment to membership or advancement in the Swan Knights.”
“Very funny, Cuilast!” the captain growled, and Liahan, his lips tightly pursed, quickly rose to go look at his fellow knight in the chair. Cuilast handed the cup to the captain and followed him, peeling one of Badhron‘s eyelids up.
“Oh yes, he’s well under, Liahan. You brace, and I’ll pull.” Brand, not certain of much at this point but that he didn’t want to watch what they were doing, turned his attention back to the captain.
“What did he mean sir? All the big words.”
“Your step-father was mistaken,” came the somewhat abrupt answer. “A bastard can become a Swan Knight. Prince Adrahil had a base-born brother who earned his white belt. And I am a bastard myself.” Brand’s eyes widened as he absorbed this news, and the captain offered him the cup again. “Drink it, boy--you don’t want to be awake for this if you don’t have to. I will send word to your family of what has happened, and deal with your stepfather and the tanner as well, if necessary. You wouldn’t be able to work for several days yet in any event--you’ll have stitches along your side that may not be pulled on. Had you not thought of that?”
Brand gave him a dismayed look, uncertain whether this was a boon or a difficulty where his plans for escape were concerned. “No sir, I hadn’t!”
“Well, I have. And since my horse was the cause of your injury, I shall deal with the consequences. Drink the draught, boy, and then you’d better lie back--it will work swiftly on one so young as yourself.”
Seeing little other recourse, Brand did as he was told. When he had finished, and set the cup aside, the captain suddenly took his chin once more, this time staring at his profile and at the unbruised side of his face for a long moment. Frowning thoughtfully, he then released the boy, patting his shoulder gently, and helping him to lie back down. It was not long before Brand began to feel a wave of weariness sweep over him. Yawning, he closed his eyes.
“It will be all right, boy,” the captain assured him, in a voice deep as Jacyn’s but more resonant and less growling. The last thing Brand felt before he slipped into darkness was the man’s hand closing firmly around his once more.