I finally made it to the baths, and for once was able to lock the door and have them to myself in peace. Wondrously, my spare uniform was even there, and I treated myself to a long and luxurious soak, and yet another hair wash. Catching myself falling asleep in the bath, I got out, toweled off, dressed myself and headed to my room with only one intention in mind-to fall into bed and remain there insensible for as long as I was allowed.
When I opened the door, however, I found Princess Mariel’s maid, Cimloren, laying the dress that had been Lady Tirathiel’s Yule gift to me over my one chair to inspect it. The soft, silver grey slippers and silver girdle that went with it were also there, as well as the appropriate underthings. She looked up as I entered, and smiled.
“I hope you do not mind, Lady Hethlin, but the Princess asked me to see if you would need any help tonight, and said that I should make sure your things were ready. She also said to remind you that Lady Tirathiel wished for you to attend the feast tonight as a proper lady, and to dance at least three dances.” I groaned.
“I had forgotten all about that, Cimloren! Do I truly have to?” Cimloren looked surprised.
“It is one of the greatest festivals of the year, Lady! There will be wonderful food, and beautiful music...why would you wish to miss it?”
“Because I wish to sleep! I was up all night long, riding to Lithabad and back!” Sighing resignedly, I groaned. “I suppose that it would not do to disappoint Lady Tirathiel. It would probably be highly unwise! If you would be so kind, have someone wake me an hour before the feast starts.”
“Only an hour before, lady? Will you not require more time to prepare?”
“Nay. It doesn’t take that long to brush my hair and put a dress on.” She looked almost scandalized.
“But do you not wish for some face paint? I see you’ve had a mishap to your face from the battle.” She shuddered at bit at the thought. “Your eye is blacking.”
“No thank you. Face paint always makes me itch.” Besides, I had no problem with making Andrahar’s handiwork very public. “And I do not think I will need any help-the dress laces up the front. But thank you for asking, and for your help, and please thank the Princess for thinking of me.” Cimloren nodded, and promised a wake-up call for dusk, then departed. I pulled my boots, belt and tunic off, and crawled into bed as I was. The moment my head hit the pillow, I was asleep.
Good as her word, Cimloren sent a page to pound upon my door at dusk, till I groaned in protest and rolled out of bed. Having gotten barely five hours sleep, I was still quite weary, and rather grumpy with it, though I thanked the page for his efforts. It took me longer to wake up fully than it did to don the dress, which was simply cut of a handsome, dark green brocade in a leaf pattern. Silver leaf embroidery decorated the neck, front and sleeve hems, and silver cord laced it up the front. It was not a fussy sort of garment, and it fitted me becomingly. As dresses went, I found it unobjectionable-Lady Tirathiel’s taste could always be relied upon.
I possessed no jewelry to augment my appearance other than the silver Lorien circlet. A quick wash of face and hands, a thorough hair-brushing, and a settling of the circlet upon that hair completed my rather rudimentary grooming. I had just finished when Cimloren knocked upon the door, and at my greeting, stuck her head into the room.
“My lady wanted me to check and make sure you did not need any help,” she said kindly.
“I am pretty much finished, Cimloren,” I replied. “Are you sure there is not something else the Princess needs me for? Perhaps I could look after Alphor during the feast.”
Cimloren laughed. “That is already taken care of, Lady Hethlin. Besides, you look very nice-it would be a shame for you not to show off all of Lady Tirathiel’s hard work. And your own, of course.”
I grimaced, reflecting upon the endless sessions of lady-like walking, sitting and dancing I’d undergone in the last few months. Cimloren seeing my expression, laughed again.
“Oh come, Lady Hethlin, you will enjoy it! The music is always grand, and as for the food...”
“I know all about the food. Remember how much time I have spent in the kitchens of late?”
“...and it is particularly exciting this year, what with the capture of the pirates. Did you know that the pirate captain had a captive?”
“A captive?” I sat down in my chair with a grin, realizing that Cimloren was determined to pass along the latest gossip. She leaned against the door jamb, and began relating the tale eagerly.
“Oh yes! Apparently, she is some well-born lady from Khand, whom he caught on one of his raids, or bought in one of those bestial Haradrim slave markets...I am not really sure. She does not speak Westron very well, and she was rather frightened, the poor thing. She must have been most grateful when Prince Erchirion took the ship!” Cimloren lowered her voice to a whisper, not that anyone else was about to listen. “That vile pirate captain kept her to see to his needs...if you know what I mean.”
I strove to look both serious and shocked. “Aye, I think I know. So, what happened to her?”
Cimloren continued in her normal voice. “Prince Erchirion brought her to my lady, as was only fit and proper. She is truly beautiful, Lady Hethlin, you should see her! Her skin is somewhat dark, but she has the most extraordinary hair-rather a bronze color. As for her eyes-I honestly couldn’t tell if they were blue or green. The Princess lent her some clothes, for the poor thing had naught but some rags and tatters. I gather,” and here the maid frowned disapprovingly, “that the pirate did not think that clothes were essential for her. She only had one little bundle of possessions, which she would not let us touch, and she would not let us help her bathe.”
“I can understand that,” I said, and Cimloren nodded.
“I do as well. She must feel very alone, and find us very strange. We are foreign folk to her, as one of us would be if we found ourselves in those heathen lands! Prince Erchirion has invited her to dinner this night. I think,” and her voice lowered conspiratorally once more, “that the Prince is a bit smitten with her.”
Prince Erchirion was the fabled sailor with a lady in every port. He was nigh on thirty years old, and had no inclination to settle down as far as anyone could tell. The life of a footloose bachelor captain seemed to suit him very well. Prince Imrahil, upon one recent occasion when someone had taken him to task about his impetuous son, had merely laughed in reply and said that the sins of his youth were coming home to roost. I had no doubt Erchirion was drawn to the young woman’s beauty, but had some concerns as to exactly what his intentions might be. I was not, however, going to express these to Cimloren.
“Perhaps she will appreciate the Prince as well, since he rescued her,” I said. “I must go see this paragon. Thank you for the news, Cimloren, and for coming to help me. Please tell the Princess that I am awake and dressed and will be at the feast.” She nodded, curtseyed and departed. I went on down to the Great Hall.
The Great Hall of Dol Amroth, while not as somber and imposing as its counterpart in Minas Tirith, was nonetheless very magnificent, with a vaulted ceiling and a stone mosaic floor inlaid with intricate designs of ships, waves and other sea motifs in vari-colored marbles. Now the walls were bedecked with evergreen garlands, and a great table ran around three sides of the hall, covered with beautiful damask cloths, and bedecked with what looked to be every piece of silver in the castle. Fine scented beeswax candles lent both light and a odor of evergreen to the air. In the center of the open space a group of minstrels played Yuletide airs, while the nobility of Dol Amroth and its vassals circulated around them, dressed in their peacock best and exchanging greetings and gossip while waiting for the arrival of the Prince and Princess and the beginning of the feast. A herald at the door announced the name and lineage of those who entered, in the finest and most cultured fashion imaginable. Great hearths upon either side of the room probably actually did little to warm it in truth, but at least the roaring fires in them lifted the spirit.
When I came in, the herald announced me, but no one paid any heed, not that I expected them to. I meandered about briefly, but not knowing most of the people there, eventually drifted over to the wall beside the doors, and leaned back against it in a most unladylike fashion, watching the throng with interest. Some of my fellow esquires were there in uniform, having the misfortune to have hall duty, and they returned my greetings with varying degrees of disgruntlement. Others had gone home to spend Yule with their families, or were socializing in the hall in their civilian finest. I noted to myself three lords I figured would dance with me and help me to complete Lady Tirathiel’s requirements, then covered my mouth, yawned, and wished that the Prince and Princess would come in, so that we could be seated. Therin’s folk were bringing in platters of delicate appetizers, and the esquires were taking them, and setting them upon the table. As usual, I was hungry.
There was a stir in the crowd, and the herald at the door announced the arrival of Prince Erchirion of Dol Amroth and Veleda of Khand. The Prince entered, dressed as finely as I’d ever seen him, and on his arm was the much-discussed captive. I studied her with curiosity.
She was a beauty, there was no doubt about that, though not in the accepted Dunedan style of pale skin, pale eyes, fine features and dark hair. Her features were regular enough, the bone structure in both face and body slightly stronger and heavier than was common among our folk. Her figure was slender but rounded nicely in all the places where roundness was indicated. Her skin was a pale tawny brown, and her hair truly bronze colored. I had not believed Cimloren, but it was so. She had been correct about the color of the lady’s eyes as well, a blue-green changeable as the Sea. Those eyes were slightly tilted up at the corners in a way that should have been similar to Elven eyes, but nonetheless looked completely different.
The Lady Veleda was tall for a woman, only a couple of inches shorter than me, but she seemed quite gentle in demeanor, clinging nervously to Prince Erchirion’s arm. She was clad in a blue gown that quite complemented her coloring, and a gold-spangled shawl was tied loosely about her shoulders, the lady apparently feeling the cold in this land further north than hers. He spoke reassuringly to her in Haradric as they passed close by, and she responded in the same language, but with an odd accent. I noted that must be what a Khandian accent must sound like, and wondered why the small hairs on the nape of my neck were suddenly standing up.
The Prince advanced towards the center of the room, and silenced the minstrels with an upraised hand. When they complied, he announced that his brother and the Princess would be arriving forthwith, and that people could begin seating themselves. Then the music resumed again. Some did move to their seats, while others lingered over their conversations. The Prince and his escort were among the lingerers.
I, on the other hand, made my way to my seat, which was on the outermost edge of the high table due to my relationship to the King. Sinking into my chair with a sigh of relief, I admired the table settings once more, and listened idly to the chatter of the folk nearest me. Four chairs to my left, closer to the center of the high table, the Prince and the Khandian lady stood before the table, chatting pleasantly. Veleda seemed to have calmed somewhat.
“But is your father not here? I had hoped to meet Prince Imrahil. He is a man of reknown, even among my people.”
“No lady, he is in Minas Tirith at the King’s Yule celebration, along with my sister Lothiriel.”
“I am sorry I will not have the opportunity then. And your sister, it is said, is quite the beauty.”
“You may meet him yet, lady. We have yet to determine how best to return you to your people. Such...arrangements take time. As for Lothiriel, perhaps you will be able to judge for yourself soon.”
“Indeed. I should like to meet her as well,” came the soft, polite reply. Something still nagging at the back of my mind, I frowned at the amicable conversation, uneasy and unable to determine why. The heralds announced the arrival of the Prince and Princess, and everyone who was seated stood, only to be courteously gestured back to their seats by the Prince, who strolled towards the high table with his lady on his arm, obviously intending to greet Erchirion and his guest. I forcibly stifled a yawn, wishing that the feast would start so that I could eat, do my dancing duties and return to my bed. Leaning back in my chair, I closed my eyes and actually drifted off for a moment. Erchirion was speaking again.
“Veleda, allow me to introduce to you my oldest brother, Prince Elphir, the Heir to Dol Amroth, and his lady wife, the Princess Mariel. And the gentleman coming over now is my younger brother Amrothos.”
“Your Highness, my lady princess, I am very pleased to meet you. Your younger brother is a fine-looking young man as well. Such a handsome family.”
Suddenly my eyes shot open in horror, for I had finally realized that the nagging feeling was memory, memory of the night before when the owner of that particular accent had shot at me and received an arrow in return.
Thinking I surely must be mistaken, I leaned forward, staring hard at Lady Veleda, who was standing in profile to me. I had a good view of her back, but could see little of her face, not that that would have been particularly helpful-I had not seen the pirate’s face clearly at all. Thinking hard, I remembered Cimloren had said that she would not allow herself to be bathed. Mere modesty and reticence, or precaution lest they find out she had been wounded? What had her closely guarded bundle of possessions contained? And was the shawl truly because she was cold, or did she wear it to hide the bulge of a bandage?
Even as I watched, and dimly heard Elphir’s, Mariel’s and Amrothos’ polite responses, I saw her left hand drift casually back behind her back, and give a very tell-tale twitch. I knew what that twitch was, for it had been covered in one of those lessons Andrahar had given me from time to time with an eye towards making me a better bodyguard for the Queen.
Cursing myself mentally for a thrice-blinded, slow-witted fool, and cursing my skirts aloud, I shoved my chair back, gathered the hampering fabric up, took a step back and vaulted up onto the table, yelling a rather incoherent warning as I did so. Two long steps sent appetizers, gravy boats, plates, goblets and candles flying, and it was probably just as well the marzipan Swanship had not yet arrived. I could see the startled expressions on the faces of the Princes and Princess and hear screams from the other celebrants as I launched myself in a desperate, flat-out dive.
Veleda spun partially around at my yell, and her left hand shot up in instinctive guard, dagger at the ready. Intent upon immobilizing the knife, I managed to clamp a hand about her forearm as I impacted. I am not a small woman by any means, and I had momentum. The two of us crashed to the floor, actually sliding a small distance on the smooth stone with me on top, Veleda shrieking in startlement and anger, and striving to strike at me with the dagger. Her body pinned by mine, I had enough freedom of movement that I could draw back my left hand and punch a fist into her shoulder. She screamed in pain and I did it again, then slammed it into her jaw. She went limp beneath me.
The hall became an uproarious hubbub of screaming ladies, exclaiming lords, and the clatter of the booted feet of guards. I felt hands clamp onto my shoulders roughly, and Prince Erchirion’s enraged voice in my ear as I was hauled to my feet, and handed off to a couple of the knights, who gripped me firmly by the arms.
“Hethlin! How dare you lay hands upon my guest in such a manner!” I felt someone slapping at my skirts, looked down and saw the Heir to Dol Amroth smothering a smouldering hole in the brocade, where unbeknownst to me the candles had apparently caught my skirt afire. Shaking in the aftermath of the battle-rush, I swallowed and tried to compose myself to explain, but Amrothos beat me to it.
“Release her, ‘Chiron,” he commanded, straightening up from where he’d stooped over Veleda, holding a slender, silver dagger very carefully in a handkerchief-covered hand. He examined it for a moment, then sniffed the blade, and his eyebrows rose.
“T’would have taken but the least scratch from this to kill all of us. Very swift, very deadly. There is no antidote.” I remembered the Prince telling me about Amrothos’ research into Haradrim poisons during our trip to Lorien. Certainly, his brothers did not seem inclined to dispute him. “It took considerable nerve to put that on a wrist blade, but I do not imagine she intended to escape afterwards, and would probably have used it on herself as well. How did you know, Hethlin?” He gave the knights still holding me a pointed look, and they released my arms. I was almost sorry that they did, because my knees were trembling, and I could have used the support. I took a deep breath, and strove once more to master myself. Master Andrahar came up at that moment, and though his face was calm enough, I could see the shock and horror in his eyes at the realization that he’d let an assassin within arm’s reach of Imrahil’s entire family. Erchirion and Elphir were looking a little white around the eyes as well, and Mariel sagged against her husband’s side in relief. Only Amrothos seemed unaffected by what had nearly transpired.
“It was the voice,” I explained when I was calm enough to do so. “Last night, when we went to Lithabad, Master Andrahar ordered me to the shoreline to shoot the pirates who were trying to escape. I found some trying to reach a boat in the surf, and killed a few, whereupon one of their officers who had a very strange accent started shouting orders, then got out of the boat and shot at me with a short bow. Either the string was wet, or it had no range at all, for the shot fell short. I then returned fire, and shot the officer in the right shoulder, and he was thrown back into the boat by his fellows. At least I thought it was a man at the time or perhaps a lad from the sound of the voice. You might look and see if the wound is actually there.”
Amrothos bent over the prone figure, set the dagger carefully aside, and removed the shawl. Undoing the laces of the dress enough to expose the shoulder but preserve modesty, he folded the edge back carefully, under the fascinated scrutiny of his brothers and sister-in-law, the knights who’d seized me, and everyone else who could squeeze close enough. A bandage was revealed beneath the fabric, and when he peeled the edge of that up, he confirmed the presence of an arrow wound. I sighed in relief, and a murmur arose from the crowd.
“There you are-she was no captive, she was one of them,” I declared. “And no doubt came up with this ruse as a last, desperate chance to strike at all of you. I heard her voice this evening, and could not figure out why she made me so uneasy. It was not till I grew tired, and shut my eyes, that I could remember where I had heard that accent before. Then I started watching her. It is fortunate that Master Andrahar had given me instruction on how to look for wrist sheaths and such but a month ago, or I might have been too late.”
Andrahar gave me an unfathomable look then. He appeared almost to be in a daze. My praise of him was probably much crueler than any accusation of negligence could be, I realized after a moment, though hurting him had not truly been my intention. Hate, loathe and even fear him as I might, I could not deny his superiority in his chosen craft, his utter loyalty to the Prince’s family, or his excellence as an instructor. His heavy-handed methods with me aside, the plain fact of the matter was that Imrahil’s Swan Knights would not have been as formidable without his tutelage, and his insistence upon adherence to standards every bit as high as his liege lord’s.
“Well, I for one am glad that he did teach you, and that you are a quick learner. I understand now why Aragorn selected you to guard his wife,” Elphir declared, while the Princess Mariel gave me a sincere, if shaken, smile.
“Hethlin,” said Amrothos a bit apologetically, “I know that you are probably very tired, but we have something else we need you to do.” I looked at him quizzically.
“Lady Veleda must be taken into custody, and I would like you to make sure that she is not hiding any other......surprises for us. Preferably before she wakes up. I think that Father would prefer that she not be handled in such a manner by a man, even if she is a pirate.” I nodded my understanding, and watched as she was lifted up by one of the knights. The crowd parted for us, murmuring, as we left the hall and proceeded down the corridors to one of the parlors. There, the knight and Amrothos stepped outside while I completed the inspection.
It was one of the more unpleasant things I had done in my life to date, given how I felt about being scrutinized in that manner myself, and I was as deft and gentle as possible. There was, in fact, another small dagger strapped to the inside of her thigh, and I presented that carefully to Amrothos when I called the two of them back in. Veleda was just beginning to stir, and another knight came in as she did, carrying a pair of manacles. At that point, I decided I had had enough, and looked to the youngest Prince for permission.
“My thanks, Hethlin,” he said with a nod, and I curtseyed and departed.
Out in the corridor, I took stock of my appearance as best I could without a mirror. I had lost the Lorien circlet somewhere in my brief combat with Veleda, my hair was in total disarray, there was a piece burned out of the bottom of my skirt through which the white fabric of my shift showed through, and the left shoulder seam of the dress was split at the shoulder from my fisticuffs, and the shift showing through that as well. I was definitely not presentable, and not much inclined to go back to the party in any event.
A quiet room in which to think was what I needed, even more than food for my growling stomach. What would have been even better would have been a quiet room with food in it. Best of all would have been a quiet room with food and someone in it I could talk to. Faramir, Mablung, Elrohir or Prince Imrahil-any of them would have served. I was in a very peculiar state of mind-weary on the one part, still overly excited from the evening’s events on the other. On the theory that rescuing three princes could be made to serve as a substitute for three dances, I decided to return to my room and my bed. I set off down the corridor, turned a corner-and nearly ran into Master Andrahar.
Taking a step back, I waited for him to acknowledge me, or indicate that I could pass. He looked me up and down, taking in all the details of my appearance, stared at his feet for a moment, then cleared his throat.
“Have you seen to the woman as Prince Amrothos asked?”
“Aye, my lord.”
“Very well then.” There was a long moment’s pause, then he asked, “Are you returning to the hall?”
“Nay, my lord, I am weary. And as I no longer meet Lady Tirathiel’s standards for proper ladylike appearance, I thought to seek my bed.” He nodded, a peculiar, abrupt gesture, then looked down at his feet again. Baffled, I watched him, having never seen him so indecisive before. After a time, he looked up and met my eyes, his own glittering darkly with some deeply-held emotion.
“Hethlin, do you remember when we first spoke in the stables in Dol Amroth, and I questioned you about the Prince’s accident?”
“Aye, my lord.” He reached a hand up slowly towards my face. I almost stepped back, but stopped myself, and felt fingertips brush the bruise lightly for a moment. Our eyes were locked upon each other. His arm dropped, he lifted his chin, and said the last thing I would have ever expected from him.
“This night, girl, you were fast enough. Take the week off with the rest of the esquires, and when we resume instruction, you will join the regular class. It would seem that your deficiencies are sufficiently amended.” I gaped at him like an idiot, he gave me another of the brusque nods, and strode off. Disbelief kept me rooted to the spot for a moment, then a warm, joyous feeling flooded into me, dispelling the weariness. A big grin broke over my face. Whooping, I leapt up high into the air, then trotted off down the hall in the opposite direction, on feet that suddenly felt like dancing.