Author’s Note-Thanks to Soledad, for allowing me to use her version of Lord Gildor in this story.
“’Tis the kitchens for you, Hethlin. You know better than to report late for hall duty,” Lord Perhinel told me, as I stood breathless before him with my hair still falling damp about my shoulders. For a moment, I wanted to protest, to explain about what had happened. To speak of how Master Andrahar had sparred with me up and down the steepest, muddiest slope in Dol Amroth most of the afternoon under the premise of working on my footwork, how he had intentionally kept me so late that a timely arrival was impossible, and how he had tripped me up so many times that I was a sodden, muddy mess when he did release me. “You can take scullery duty tonight as well,” he added grimly, “for this is not the first time you have been laggard. Go sup with the kitchen help.”
Some of my fellow esquires without hall duty had dawdled far past any need for cleansing in the bathing room, refusing to finish so that I could take my own much-needed bath, and when I had gone to the cubby hole where the launderers left each of us clean uniforms, mine had been missing. Which had necessitated a hurried trip to my room, where I kept an extra one against such occurrences, now a habitual part of my life. Carrying it carefully so as not to soil it, I had returned and finally got my bath. My wretched white hair had to be soaped and rinsed three times to remove all the dirt caked within it. Since Master Andrahar had not released me until almost the fourth bell, which was when I was supposed to report, and the fifth was now ringing, I actually thought I was doing rather well to have reported when I had. But of course, Lord Perhinel would not see it that way.
“Aye, my lord,” I said, repressing a sigh, and turning on my heel, went back down the passageway towards the kitchens. Behind me, seated in the small mess room where they ate before serving the evening meal, my fellow esquires sniggered and whispered amongst themselves. Lord Perhinel called them sharply to order, and they began to file into the main hall, pristine in their Swanship tabards. I did mine off on the way to the kitchens, and after a moment’s reflection, removed my tunic too, and rolled up my undershirt sleeves. The kitchen’s huge ovens and hearths made it the warmest place in the castle, a not entirely unwelcome prospect on this evening of icy rain. Though winters in my childhood home at the foot of the Ered Nimrais had probably actually been somewhat colder, the fading of the year in Dol Amroth had quickly taught me how the seaside damp could bite into one’s bones.
I stepped through the kitchen door and into an orderly sort of chaos. The kitchen was a huge room, well-lit with oil lantern chandeliers. Spit boys sat by the great hearths, turning the spits; bakers pulled freshly-baked bread from the ovens with huge wooden paddles. At tables along the walls and running down the center of the room, what seemed a veritable horde of kitchen help chopped, ladled, dished out and otherwise prepared the evening feast. It was the night before Yule, and though Prince Imrahil was in Minas Tirith with Princess Lothiriel at King Elessar’s first Yule celebration, Prince Elphir and Princess Mariel were holding court in his stead. Every vassal and lord who could not or would not make the trip to Minas Tirith was in the great hall tonight. Music drifted into the kitchen, faintly discernible even over the noise and bustle, every time the door was opened.
Prince Imrahil’s table was renowned up and down the coast, but the holiday meant that even more effort was expended, and I inhaled the rich odors appreciatively, particularly the spice bread, which I loved. Therin, the Prince’s head cook, a tall man with an expansive girth that spoke of dedicated sampling of his culinary endeavors, turned and saw me.
“Chopper!” he bellowed, grinning, for so he had named me when he first discovered I was fairly useless as a cook’s assistant, save for dressing out carcasses or cutting things up. “In trouble again, are you?”
I nodded glumly. “Aye. Late again.” Therin, who heard much more of what went on in the castle than people might give him credit for, shook his head.
“Ah lass, you have a hard road ahead of you and no mistake! Hang your things up, and then go over to the side table-there are some roasts there I want carved. You eaten yet?”
“Nay, but I’ll catch it later. You have me for scullery tonight as well.” He raised his eyebrows at that.
“You must have been late indeed!”
“Aye. ‘Twas for that, and the fact that I am a repeat offender.”
“Ah! A hardened criminal!” He chuckled. “Get to it, lass.” I did as I was commanded, and found the plates with the roasts upon them, and a sharp knife ready to hand. Carving was something I did swiftly and tolerably well, and though the usual custom in the land was to leave meats in one piece for show and allow one’s guests to carve out what they would for themselves, the Prince seemed to feel that was a messy procedure, and always sent his meat to the table sliced. Needless to say, this did not apply to the boar’s head, or the other subtleties that were paraded into the hall with great pomp and splendor.
I set to work, and a short time later, the roasts were ready to take out. I turned to find a heavily-laden dinner plate being set at my elbow, along with a tankard of chilled milk, by one of the young scullery maids, who smiled shyly at me. Others of the kitchen staff called greetings in a friendly manner, for my continual disgraces had made them well-acquainted with me. As I took my supper to the small corner table set aside for the staff, and sniffed the delicious odors of the sweet confections being baked for dessert-confections that we would be allowed to sample first-it occurred to me that I might have the better part of things than my brethren in the hall, even if I did have to scrub pots later on.
But as matters turned out, pot-scrubbing was not in my future. Dinner was almost over when Lord Perhinel came to the kitchen, exchanged a few words with Therin, then gestured me over. I was helping Gaelwyn, Therin’s wife, a woman near tall as he but very spare where he was portly, put the finishing touches on a huge marzipan Swanship which was intended as a subtlety for the Yule feast next night. Such creations were her responsibility, and this one was truly incredible, modeled after Prince Erchirion’s ship Foam-flyer, with accents of real silver foil. She had me carefully painting the waves beneath it blue, after which she intended to frost their crests. It was a task I found rather enjoyable, and certainly preferable to washing pots. I put my brush down and approached him when he beckoned me.
“Put your tunic and tabard back on, Hethlin, and report to the Prince’s study.” I nodded, and turned to do his bidding, but he stopped me with a hand upon my arm. “Hethlin, why did you not tell me that Andrahar had kept you till fourth bell?”
“It would have seemed I was making excuses, sir.”
“When one of your teachers holds you late for additional instruction, that is not an excuse, that is a valid reason. Andrahar has my duty roster-he knew that I needed you.”
“Master Andrahar is very concerned over my deplorable swordsmanship, and I was having a worse day than usual. He must have lost track of the time. I am fortunate that he takes such pains with me.”
“Indeed.” Lord Perhinel’s tone was very dry. “Well, the next time this sort of thing happens, tell me. Had not Prince Amrothos spoken to me, I would have punished you for no cause.” I nodded, remembering the youngest Prince’s arrival towards the end of my lesson. I had noticed that he was actually wearing a gambeson, and wondered what it was that he and Andrahar were going to do, since no one ever saw Amrothos with a sword in his hand. “As it is, I rescind your scullery duty. Do as the Princes bid you, and if they have no further use for you, return to the main hall.”
“Aye, my lord.” He departed, and I hastened to do as I had been commanded. I hurried back into proper uniform, pulled the comb from my pouch through my now-dry hair ruthlessly, then ran upstairs and knocked upon the door of the Prince’s study. When I was admitted, I found all of Prince Imrahil’s sons there, along with Master Andrahar, the lords Liahan and Esteven and Cirhayer, one of Erchirion’s fellow captains. I bowed, and was acknowledged by Erchirion, who gestured to me graciously.
“Thank you for coming so swiftly, Hethlin. Bide but a moment.” He turned to his captain and the others. “It must be the Sangahyando-it smacks of their boldness. But they have overstepped themselves this time, and we shall have them at last.” Captain Ciryaher looked unconvinced, and my ears pricked with interest. Though I knew little of the goings on of Dol Amroth’s navy, everyone knew that Prince Erchirion had been pursuing a particular Corsair vessel for the better part of a year. A swift ship with raking, clean lines, and sporting a striking purple, gold and black sail, she had not only preyed upon shipping, but actually had the temerity to strike inland against some of Dol Amroth’s coastal villages as well. Though Erchirion was arguably one of the canniest sailors who had ever sailed deep water, and though his Foam-flyer was possibly the swiftest ship whose keel had ever been laid in western Gondor, he had been unable to close and do battle with his equally cunning foe.
As the days had shortened, so had the second-born prince’s temper, and it was very short of late, for now his beloved Foam-flyer was dry-docked well above the tide line upon an intricate dry-dock structure designed by his younger brother Amrothos. Canvas covered her starboard side, where, it was said, some bad timbers had been discovered below the waterline and removed before the start of the Yule holiday. She was not seaworthy, and it was doubtful that any other ship would be fast enough to catch the Corsair vessel.
“My lord prince, the Ancalimë is at your disposal,” Captain Ciryaher declared, “should you wish to command her in this venture.” Erchirion smiled, for even though such an assumption of command was his right, no captain ever liked to give over his ship, and Ciryaher’s offer had been both prompt and without reservation.
“I shall not take your lady from you, Ciryaher,” he replied. “But see that you go to her now and prepare to set sail as soon as possible. I shall find my own way to the Sangahyando.” Ciryaher nodded, looking as puzzled as I felt, then bowed and departed.
“Where are your men, ‘Chiron?” Master Andrahar asked.
“At the Eagle and Arrow.”
“I will see to it.” Much planning had already taken place before my arrival, it seemed. Andrahar gave me a sudden, considering look. “Hethlin. That bow of yours. Did you not say once that Elven bows are usable even in rain?”
“Aye, my lord. So Elrohir told me. But I have never put it to the test.”
“Then we will try it now. Go, arm and armor yourself, and saddle your fastest horse. Prince Amrothos will meet you at the stables and give you further instructions. Quickly now, girl!” I bowed, turned, and ran out of the room. Even running as swiftly as I could, it took some minutes to return to my rooms and gird on my armor and weapons, then turn about again to make my way down to the stables, and when I got there, Prince Amrothos was already waiting for me.
Gull tossed her head as I saddled her, impatient to be off, while Prince Amrothos leaned against the stable wall and watched me.
“I need you to take me down to the dry-dock, Hethlin,” he said quietly.
“Very well, my lord,” I responded, still baffled. “Be watchful-Gull doesn’t like to double-she may give a buck or two.”
“I shall cling like a limpet,” he promised with a sudden grin. And indeed, he weathered Gull’s irritated crowhop safely, and did not hamper me unduly as we rode, though my bow and quiver must have been in his way. It was not a pleasant night-an icy rain was falling intermittently, and I drew my cloak up high around my neck, and cursed under my breath.
“Make haste,” he commanded me, and I did as I was told, setting heels to Gull and fair flying down the road out of the City, and then the road down to the wharves. Once there, we took the side road that led to the dry-dock area. Amrothos directed me to where his brother’s ship sat above the water, winched up into the structure that I could see would enable shipwrights to access all parts of it while it remained upright, rather than lying upon its side, as was customarily the case. It seemed a clever idea, but then Amrothos had clever ideas aplenty. There were lanterns burning at intervals along the dry-dock, and I tied Gull, still restive despite her run, to one of the lantern posts, and threw my cloak over her.
Some of Erchirion’s marines were guarding the ship. They did not challenge us, but merely saluted the Prince. He gestured to me to follow him, and I did, up a ramp onto the deck of the vessel itself, which was somewhat tilted due to the slanted position of the slip. He then indicated the railing, where cords held the canvas cover up.
“Cut those for me, if you would, Hethlin.” He called down to the guards. “You fellows, once she has it loose, pull it away from the ship, and roll it up.” Cheerful assents were heard from below. Amrothos went forward, apparently intent upon examining the cable that connected the ship to the winch. I began cutting cords. When he was done there, he went down the ramp, and proceeded to check the sides of the ship. What he was looking for, I had no idea, but eventually he seemed satisfied, and returned to the deck, just as I cut the last cord. The canvas fell to the platform, to be seized upon by the waiting men. I leaned as far over as I could to confirm something I’d begun to suspect.
“There is nothing wrong with the Foam-flyer, is there, my lord Prince?” I could hear the sound of hooves in the distance, many hooves coming closer as he answered me.
“No, Hethlin, there isn’t. Though you and everyone else were meant to think so.”
“Why the ruse?”
Amrotho’s brow creased. “Have you never wondered why ‘Chiron has been unable to find the Sangahyando?”
“It did seem a bit odd. Prince Erchirion is too capable a sailor.”
“Indeed. Well, the reason that they have always been where he is not is that there is a traitor amongst us relaying information to them.” I stared at him, shocked, and he nodded. “Elphir has been trying to get his hands on this fellow for a long time, and he finally discerned his identity some time ago. Elphir has been running Father’s spy network for some time now.”
“But...he’s so nice!” Amrothos smiled at my protest.
“It is more my sort of job, you mean?”
Flustered, I stammered a bit. “Nay, my lord, that is not what I meant...”
“It is all right, Hethlin. Actually, I do help Elph from time to time. I like codes and secret messages and that sort of thing. But he runs the people side of things, and does it very well. After all, a spymaster who is not obviously a spymaster is the best sort to have, don’t you think?” I had to admit that he had a point. The noise of hooves was growing louder yet.
“So, this is why you have let everyone think the Foamflyer is damaged?”
“Aye, as they say on the sea-and in Anorien.” I grinned. “We’ve had a message that they are attacking a village not twenty miles from here, and our sentries can see the fires from the watchtower.” That sobered me back up in a hurry. “We had hoped that, between the Yule celebration and the knowledge that Erchirion was beached, they could not resist making a gesture.”
“A gesture, sir?”
“Elph thinks they are not pirates, but disaffected Haradrim nationals, some well-connected sons not content to let the peace stand. That is why they are so bold-they hope to provoke a response from us that will end in open war.”
“No. If we catch them and hang them, as is the custom when dealing with pirates, Harad will not dare to day anything, for if they should protest, it is an admission that they are involved and they will lose face. And hopefully, tonight will be the night that we take them. They have done our people enough damage that their capture is a Yule gift Father would greatly treasure.”
Amrothos then moved to the rail, and I followed after. Swan Knights were pouring onto the docks, each with a sailor or marine behind them. Prince Erchirion was perched behind Andrahar himself, and he slid off before the Armsmaster had halted his horse, taking the ramp in three great leaps to throw an arm about his younger brother.
“Is everything ready, ‘Rothos?”
“Aye, Captain,” Amrothos said with a grin. Erchirion released him and shook a warning finger at him.
“This had better work, brother! If you break her keel...” “Amrothos rolled his eyes.
“I will not break her keel, ‘Chiron! I had the area around the slip well-dredged this summer, do you not remember? She will slide into the water sweet as a sword into its sheath. Trust me, and get your men in place.”
Erchirion shook his head, and proceeded to do just that, barking orders that were, for the most part, incomprehensible to me. Master Andrahar saw me, and gestured me down off the ship.
“Mount up, Hethlin! We have almost seven leagues to cover, and not much time to do it in.” I went to Gull, took my rather horsy-smelling cloak back, checked her girth, and mounted. Master Andrahar reined over to me.
“The Valar willing, we’ll catch them on the shore. You are not to join the battle, for I do not deem you ready for such. I am bringing you for one purpose, and one purpose only. If they get into their boats, I want you to shoot them. If we join with them, do not shoot into the melee-you are there to take the ones trying to escape. Do you understand?”
“Aye, my lord,” I muttered, my face suddenly hot with anger. Not ready? After the battles I’d been in? And to imply that I might hit one of ours by accident if I fired into the fight? Such was a deadly insult to a Ranger of Ithilien! But he was watching me intently, the lantern light making his eyes glitter darkly, so I swallowed my anger and my pride.
“Keep to the rear, behind the Knights, esquire,” he commanded me, and when I nodded, moved off to speak with Lord Liahan. The Knights had formed up, and waited silently for Andrahar’s further orders. I took my place at the end of the line.
Aboard the ship, Erchirion’s crew had situated themselves, crouching upon the deck, their arms hooked through the railing. Erchirion himself was back by the rudder, which was lashed in place, and had crooked his arm through the rail as well. Amrothos had climbed up onto the docking structure at the front of the ship. Lord Esteven was with him, and he carried an axe. Amrothos cast one last look over things, then raised his arm. His brother raised his in turn, and waved, and Amrothos dropped his arm. Esteven swung the axe. There was a thunking noise, and the hawser holding the Foam-flyer in place was severed.
With a creaking of timbers, the ship slid swiftly down the dry-dock and into the water, her stern plunging almost all the way under with a great wash of dark water. I thought that Prince Erchirion must surely have been thrown from the ship, but when it righted, he was still there, unlashing the rudder and pushing it hard over, barking orders to his crew, who were scrambling to obey. Foam-flyer was turning slowly on the momentum of her plunge alone, but oars were swiftly run out and began to stroke on one side while backing on the other, hurrying the process, and no sooner did her nose point out to sea than her sail was raised, and began to belly in the wind.
I knew next to nothing about seamanship, but even I could tell that it was a masterful maneuver, and the Swan Knights raised a spontaneous cheer. Up on the dry-dock, Amrothos lifted a lantern, and waved it in salute to his brother, who had one of his sailors wave one in return. The rain ceased momentarily, and the moon peeked out from scudding clouds, silvering the bay, and the ship, which momentarily resembled the ship on Dol Amroth’s standard as she began to move out into open water. Lord Esteven rejoined us, then Master Andrahar ordered us forward, and we thundered off into the night.
The Swan Knights’ horses were the best bred in Gondor, some would have said a match for the steeds of the Rohirrim, and indeed, they had much Rohirrim blood in them. They were grain-fed, well-shod and carefully conditioned, and flew down the coast road as if they had wings. Our destination was the small fishing village of Lithabad, nestled in the eastward lea of the promontory upon which Dol Amroth stood, and indeed, the city and castle were easily visible from the village. The village was also visible from the City, but not on a dark night. The sentries on the battlements would not have seen the incursion until fires had been set, and they probably would have believed them to be Yule bonfires at first. Unless our adversaries had gone further inland on a very daring raid, our chances of catching them were not good, but we were determined to try nonetheless, and pushed our horses to a pace that Andrahar would ordinarily never have approved. But the Prince’s people were under attack, and their welfare was more important than that of our war-horses, no matter how expensive they might be.
Gull, who was arguably the fastest horse in the company and a racer by nature, hated being at the back of the line and having mud thrown in her face by her predecessors. Her ears pinned flat back, she kept hanging her head on the bit, trying to snatch it and bolt in a return to her bad old ways. I had had a very wearying day, and she tired my already tired arms that much more. Only the knowledge that Andrahar, who was much my elder, and had fought every bit as hard as I had that afternoon, was at the front of the line kept me going. I was determined not to show weakness in front of him.
Gull’s fractiousness was just one part of the misery that ride became. The rain, which was mixed with sleet, blew in intermittently from the Sea on a wind that cut through our cloaks to our very bones. Our horses’ hooves threw up mud that spattered all over our clothing and armor. Just contemplating the clean-up that would be necessary to restore us to the pristine state the Prince required of his knights was enough to depress me. By the time we neared Lithabad, I was shivering so hard, and my hands were so numb, that I wondered if I would be able to shoot at all. But seeing the glow of the burning village ahead drove all complaints from my mind, and I found myself dropping into that calm, meditative state of mind that readied me for battle.
Pirates were not generally masters of land-based strategy, and as we approached the village, the Swan Knights moved from column to a line, thundering towards the outlying houses more or less abreast, with no command other than to seek and kill. And as we came in, I could see that fortune was with us this night, for against all hope the Sangahyando was still there, a dim black bulk against the sea , and off in the distance there was a glimmer of light on the water that might be the Foam-flyer. Further back was another I supposed might be the Ancalimë, slower than her sister ship.
Given my orders, I moved to the left end of the line, closest to the shore, and let go Gull’s head. Tired as she was, she immediately forged ahead of her fellow war-horses and I parted company with them to ride the water’s edge, looking for boats, unslinging my bow and nocking an arrow, guiding Gull with my knees. I had not brought my elf-fletched arrows on this expedition-they were precious, not easily replaced, and I did not want to risk them shooting in the dark and over water. What I had with me were the fine new shafts that I had recently fletched in Dol Amroth blue, which I knew would serve well enough for the purpose. Fortuitously, the rain finally ceased as we entered the village, and the moon came completely out from behind the thinning clouds. The wind still cut keenly though, and it felt as if the weather would be much colder before morning.
Cries of “Dol Amroth!” and Southron curses arose to my right as the Swan Knights started moving through the burning houses, and ahead of me, I could see a straggling line of figures, running as if heavily laden, and heading for a ship’s boat waiting ready in the surf. My first shot was directed towards the one at the front of the line, and it struck home, dropping him in his tracks, and causing the pirates behind him to stumble and swerve and fall over his body, which gave me time to pick off two more.
In the boat, a figure stood up and shouted encouragement to the runners in a rather high-pitched voice with a peculiar accent I did not recognize. After a moment, he leaped into the surf and waded ashore, carrying something in his hands. I realized it was a short bow when an arrow arced into the sand some feet ahead of Gull, and I grinned, for it was apparent that no matter what precautions had been taken, the pirate’s bowstring was wet, and the pull of his bow much reduced. I heard him curse in that strangely accented Haradric as he realized his shot had fallen short, and why.
My elf-bow, however, had no such problems, and it thrummed as I sent an arrow into the right shoulder of the archer. He staggered and went to his knees, and a couple of his fellows actually dropped their booty to help him back into the boat, by which I deduced he must be one of their officers. I shot at him once more, but one of his assistants got in the way, and I dropped him instead. Two more fell back into the surf before the rest managed to shove off and throw themselves into the boat, trying to crouch as low as possible while still rowing furiously. I shot a last arrow at the boat, then moved on, looking for another. To my right, several houses in the village burned merrily, though a sizable number of others were still unscathed.
Galloping down the shore a way, I found only one other possible pirate boat, that one unmanned and pushed above the tideline. A couple of the pirates came staggering over the sand dunes to my right, trying to reach it, and I shot them before they’d even truly had a chance to register that I was there. Then, feeling that I’d perhaps done all the damage that could be done on the shore, I turned back towards the center of the village. On its outskirts, I paused, noticing the body of a pirate who had crawled some way towards the water with a white-fletched arrow in his back. I slid off of Gull and walked over to pull the arrow free and examine it. To my amazement, it was an elf-arrow I held, not unlike the Lorien arrows I’d left back in the City in size and style, though the fletching threads were a dark color, perhaps blue, instead of gold, and the feathers white instead of grey. I held it ready as I walked in amongst the houses. There, I found the Swan Knights congregated, most of them having draped their cloaks over their steaming horses and walking them in small circles.
By that, I determined that our part of the battle was over. Looking back towards the water for a moment, I saw that the boat must have reached the Corsair vessel, for it looked as if she were raising sail. There was absolutely nothing that could be done about that except to hope that Prince Erchirion was in fact on his way and could catch her. I turned back to our business, and sought for Master Andrahar. I found him with Liahan and Esteven, and a man in the rough garb of a fisherman with a sword slash upon his forehead, who was one of the villagers. They were talking quietly and staring at a group of Elves who stood but a short distance away, also conferring amongst themselves. One of them, obviously the leader, stood with his arms crossed, and a slight frown upon his face, surveying us.
As I came up, Liahan started to move towards the Elves, but was halted by Andrahar.
“He speaks Westron every bit as well as we do, and you know it, Liahan,” the Armsmaster was saying. “This business about needing a translator is just to provoke me.”
“Be that as it may, my lord, the Prince would wish us to extend him every courtesy. And I truly do not mind.”
“But I do.” Sighing in frustration, Liahan subsided. I moved to Master Andrahar’s side.
“Hethlin?” he asked neutrally. I bowed.
“My lord, I saw two pirate boats. One of them was manned, and I shot six pirates, though the boat did get away and return to the ship. One of the pirates was wounded, but I believe the others to be dead. The second was unmanned, and I killed two pirates trying to get to it. They were the only boats I saw.” He nodded, neither praising nor complaining, then gave me a sudden, speculative look.
“Hethlin. That gentleman over there is Gildor Inglorion, the Lord of Edhellond. I am not entirely sure, but it is said he is a King, or would be one if the Elves still had kingdoms...I do not understand such things, nor do I care overmuch. Lord Gildor does not speak Westron, and I need an interpreter. I want you to go over there and ask him what it is he does so far from Edhellond this night and how it is he is come nigh almost to the walls of Dol Amroth with an armed company. Ask him that. Exactly that.”
I gave him an uneasy glance, not wanting to be used as a pawn in some sort of game between him and the Lord Gildor, and I was not the only one who thought it untoward.
“My Lord!” Liahan protested. “Lord Gildor is not one to send an esquire to as translator! It is an insult!” Andrahar smiled a most unpleasant smile.
“I do not know how you can say that, Liahan-Lady Hethlin is practically an elf-friend! She has an elf-bow, elf-arrows and even an elven lover! Who could be more appropriate?” I reddened at his mention of Elrohir, but could see that he was determined to humiliate me in this manner, and decided that it were best to get it swiftly over with.
“Aye, my lord,” I responded resignedly, and proffered my reins to Liahan, who gave me a sympathetic and troubled look as he took them. Then, squaring my shoulders, I moved towards the contingent of Elves, and bowed low before their Lord.
“A star shines on the hour of our meeting, Lord Gildor,” I said politely in the Elven tongue. “Master Andrahar sends me to you to serve as the translator you requested.” Lord Gildor was a coldly handsome elf with the chilliest sea-grey eyes I had ever seen. He was wearing a dark blue cloak over what might have been grey leathers, and he had a bow at his back and sword at his side. His heavy gold hair was tied into a club with leather thongs, a style I’d never seen before. His followers were dressed and armed similarly, though not as richly.
Those icy eyes flicked up and down my person once, before pinning me to the spot with a very unsettling stare.
“He does, does he...esquire?” His voice was deep, though melodious, but also very cool. “Who might you be, and what message do you bring me from the Master of the Swan Knights?”
“I am Hethlin daughter of Halaran of the House of the Eagle, my lord. As to the message...” I hesitated a moment before continuing. “Master Andrahar wonders what brings you so far afield with an armed company, and so close to Dol Amroth this night. Though for my part,” I added swiftly, “I am glad that you were, and I am sure the villagers were too.” The corner of Lord Gildor’s sculpted mouth twitched ever so slightly. Almost too swiftly to be seen, his hand flashed towards my face, fingertips brushing the hair away from my forehead.
“House of the Eagle, you say? And blooded too, apparently. Who blooded you?”
“The Windlady Gwaenaur,” I replied, rather surprised. A slight flicker of the eyebrow, not unlike Lord Elrond’s, registered possible surprise on his part as well.
“And who stood with you. Your father?”
“My father is dead. Lord Celeborn of Lorien sponsored me.” Lord Gildor laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh, but neither was it unfriendly.
“I know who you are now, lady. You are the mortal woman who keeps company with Elrohir of Imladris! I should have known-I see that you carry his bow. Do you carry his heart with you as well?”
“We are friends,” came my standard response, lame though it sounded under the penetrating glance of the Elf-lord. Lord Gildor laughed again.
“I imagine that your friendship gives Lord Elrond little peace.”
“He is not particularly happy about it, that is true. Has my lord some message he would give Master Andrahar?” I thought it past time to steer the conversation away from my personal life. Lord Gildor actually smiled slightly, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Tell Master Andrahar that it is refreshing to find that he has finally had the mother wit to assign an appropriate person to translate for me, particularly after all this time. I had always heard that mortals learned quickly, but he seems to be the exception to the rule. Tell him that exactly.” I gaped at him for a moment, caught between horror at the discourtesy, and a sort of covert glee at being able to insult my nemesis with impunity. There was the tiniest glint in Lord Gildor’s eye that told me he was in some way well aware of my feelings as he continued.
“As to how I came to be here, I was sailing into Edhellond, so as to be present for the Yule festivities on the morrow. Where I was before then is of no concern to mortals. I saw the Corsair vessel, but my own ship was too small and too lightly crewed to close with it, so we slipped past them. Elven ships are as capable of stealth on the sea as our hunters are upon the land. I took a party ashore to do what I could, and began helping villagers escape and shooting pirates. Eventually, you arrived. That is the whole of the story. Tell him that as well.” I nodded, bowed, and returned to Master Andrahar.
I relayed Lord Gildor’s speech to Master Andrahar verbatim, and keeping my face straight as I did so was one of the hardest things I’d had to do since my arrival in Dol Amroth. Liahan ducked his head suddenly, and Esteven turned his laugh into an almost-convincing cough. Andrahar frowned.
“Tell Lord Gildor that we are quite capable of defending our own people, and while his incursion into our territory was done for only the best of reasons, it was unnecessary, and we would not wish to make him late for his peoples’ celebration. We have matters well in hand now, and he may depart.” That seemed somewhat churlish to me, and to Liahan and Esteven as well, judging from the looks they gave him. Even the village headman looked surprised. I had no choice but to return to the Elves and relay this message, and I was not happy about it. Though Lord Gildor did not seem upset, several of his followers murmured amongst themselves, and I was ashamed suddenly, for Master Andrahar’s boorish behavior showed the Knights and by reflection, the Prince, to poor advantage.
“From the sound of things, I suspect we have outworn our welcome, Huntress Hethlin,” Lord Gildor said quietly. “You can assure Master Andrahar that we will leave Dor-en-Ernil as swiftly as we may.” He turned, and began to walk off, with a swift, arrogant pace, his men following silently after. Unable to leave things as they were, I called after him.
“My lord!” He paused, and looked back over his shoulder. “I know, that were the Prince here, he would be very grateful for your actions this night. For had you not arrived in such a timely manner, the villagers would have suffered much more than they did. Though I have no right to do so, please allow me to extend to you his thanks.” Another of his chilly smiles flitted across his face, and he turned back around to face me.
“Having known Imrahil from the day of his birth, I already know this, Huntress. Do not distress yourself-you have been caught in the middle of an old quarrel this night. A quarrel in which, by virtue of what I am and what your superior is, I will inevitably have the last word, so it concerns me little. Andrahar knows this, which is no small part of the problem, and I, to my great shame, am not above provoking him. But I know that Imrahil would appreciate your courtesy on his behalf.” Much to my surprise, he bowed to me, I bowed in return, and he started off once more into the darkness.
I returned to the Swan Knights, only to find Master Andrahar looking upon me with a darkly furious glare. It suddenly occurred to me that, like Lord Gildor, he might truly have no need for a translator himself, for all that he claimed he knew no Elvish.
“You spoke overlong to merely relay the message I had given you, Hethlin. What else did you say?”
There seemed little sense in prevarication. “I gave Lord Gildor the Prince’s thanks. It seemed to me something the Prince would have wanted said, known as he is for his courtesy.”
I had been expecting any number of responses, but not the fist that slammed into my left cheek and knocked me to the ground. Andrahar had never struck me in deliberate anger before, but he was absolutely enraged now.
“It is not your place, esquire, to speak for the Prince in the presence of your betters! You were told what you should say, and nothing else!”
I picked myself up off the ground, rubbing my cheek gingerly, murder in my eyes. For one, brief, white-hot moment I actually contemplated drawing on him, and I knew he could see that in my glance. I also knew that if I did so, that would be the end of my career in the Swan Knights, for one did not strike a superior officer. Ever. And though I wanted very badly to accuse him of intentionally being rude to one of the Prince’s allies, one never did that, either. After all, I had disobeyed his orders, or at least exceeded them. So I throttled back both my rage and my words, and simply stood there, shaking a bit and awaiting orders.
“Get on your horse!” he snarled, then turning to Esteven, said in a considerably calmer voice, “You will remain here with your men, Esteven, and see to the needs of the villagers. I will see that a wagon of supplies is sent on-food, blankets, medicines, the like, though you may not see it till well into tomorrow.” Esteven nodded, after a quick, concerned look in my direction. The other Swan knights were mounting up, and I could see the surviving villagers beginning to come quietly back into the village, exclaiming over the damage that had been done. I did not know, and was not about to ask, how many of them had been injured or killed, but it did not look to be a happy Yule for them. I wondered if Lord Gildor had had a healer with him, and if he would have helped the villagers had I asked, but it was too late to do anything about that now.
Andrahar gave the order to ride out, and we trotted into the predawn darkness, taking a much slower pace on our return back to the City than we had coming forth. As we left the village, he called a halt for a moment and we all looked seaward, for we could dimly hear the sounds of battle coming over the water, and could see Foam-flyer, palely silver in the moonlight, hard against the Haradrim ship, with the Ancalimë on the approach. There was naught we could do for Prince Erchirion but send a prayer to the Valar on his behalf, and in that moment, I am sure that many of the Knights did just that. Then we moved on once more.
We entered the city gates the third hour after dawn. I wanted nothing more than to fall into a hot bath, and then into bed, so cold and weary was I, but there was poor Gull to be cared for, exhausted after our long ride, and my tack to be restored to proper order. The Knights themselves tended their horses with their own hands, but then a flood of esquires poured into the barn to see to their gear. No such courtesy was extended to me, and I was there an hour after the others had gone, soaping and oiling and polishing. It was an hour before noon when I stepped out of the stable, and heard the bells. Looking seaward, I could see three ships entering the harbor, the Sangahyando between the two Dol Amroth vessels. A sound of cheering drifted up from the docks below, and despite my bone-deep weariness and anger at Master Andrahar, I had to smile. It looked as if in his absence, Prince Imrahil had received a fine Yule gift after all.