Captain Andrahar, formerly of Harad, Armsmaster and Commander of the Swan Knights, sworn brother to Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, watched the lad succumb to the poppy and sighed. A bad business this day’s work had been, but it could have been far worse. One or both of the lads could have been killed. Seeing Rahur go for the lad, he had feared that they were too late. But luck, and the boy’s own stout heart had saved him, thereby sparing Andrahar guilt that would have preyed upon him for the rest of his life.
Rahur, always vicious, had become increasingly difficult after the battle at the Black Gate, until the Swan Knight had begun to wonder if the horse did not have some physical problem that was making him act so. Cuilast had consulted some medical texts and told him that could in fact be the case, but that he was certainly not going to examine him! So Andrahar had simply been as careful as he could with the stallion, making sure that no one who was not a competent horseman dealt with him, when he was not there to see to him himself.
Captain Peloren was the Horsemaster for the Swan Knights, and Badhron, one of his chosen assistants, was certainly qualified to deal with Rahur. Andrahar had had no qualms about leaving the horse to him while he spoke to the innkeeper. But the stallion had gone straight up for no good reason but moments later, and had struck Badhron in the chest with a hoof coming down, breaking the man’s hold upon him. It was a mercy of sorts Rahur had decided to trot into the barn in search of his supper, rather than escape into the streets. Andrahar shuddered at the thought of the damage the stallion could have done to person and property running wild in Pelargir.
He looked down at the boy again, and seeing that profile, frowned once more. Pale skin, grey eyes, black hair--the Dunadan stamp was on him, to be sure. Good blood in back of him somewhere. But many men in Dol Amroth and western Gondor were of such coloring. There was no good reason for the nagging feeling of familiarity that kept nudging at him.
“Hoi now, you whoreson!” He remembered hearing the boy’s cry as he ran towards the barn. Calm command in the voice, no fear at all. No doubt heartening to the lad that had been with him. The lad whom he had saved….
“He kept him off me, I’ll have you know!”
A brave lad, and a fine one. Too fine, perhaps to be a tanner. Or perhaps not…the maw of war devoured fine lads innumerable. Surely a few should be saved back, to breed more fine lads?
“But I do not want to be a foot-soldier. I want to be a Swan Knight.” Andrahar had to give the boy credit--he not only had dreams, he had big, bold dreams. The captain rather liked that. His birthday is tomorrow, and all his choices have been taken from him. I certainly know how that feels! Even a child of eleven or twelve does not like to feel powerless.
He looked over at the healer and Liahan, and found them strapping Badhron’s arm. “How is he looking now, Cuilast?”
The healer frowned. “It was a clean break, though he’s badly bruised. But it’s the wagons for him tomorrow.”
“Would a day’s rest help?”
Cuilast shrugged. “It certainly wouldn’t hurt! It really won’t help that much--he’s going to hurt when we start up again in any event, but I would like to have the day to keep an eye on him. And the little fellow as well, to make sure he’s not taking wound fever from that filthy fork handle.”
“Then you have it. Liahan, go get some men and the stretcher from the wagon, and get Badhron upstairs into a bed. And tell Peloren that I said that we’re staying here tomorrow, and will move out the next day. We’ll work out a drill schedule later.”
“Yes, captain. I’ll inform the innkeeper as well.” But there was no need of that, for Thurfyn came into the room at that moment with kitchen maids bearing the pot of hot water, and the towels the healer had requested.
“Inkeeper, we’ll be staying through tomorrow, to tend to our wounded man and make sure that the boy is well,” Andrahar told him. Thurfyn looked both surprised and pleased. As well he should, given what we’re paying him, the captain thought dryly. When Thurfyn looked down at Brand, his attitude was almost avuncular, though he paled a bit at all the blood.
“And how is the lad?”
“Not so bad as he looks,” Cuilast said, directing the maids in the disposition of his water and towels. “I’m going to stitch him up now, if you’d care to watch.” The innkeeper started backing hastily for the door. “No, I’ve much to do, the dinner to set upon the boards, baths to be heated…”
“Of your courtesy, send a lad to the boy’s house, to tell his family what has happened,” Andrahar commanded. “They’ll be expecting him home soon, and will worry,”
Thurfyn nodded. “Indeed, my lord, that is well thought of. I’ll see to it immediately.” And he fled.
The Captain looked at his healer after the man had gone. “Not nice, Cuilast.” Cuilast’s thin face lightened with a smile that was not entirely pleasant, as he laid his implements out upon the clean toweling with swift efficiency.
“He has no use for the boy, unless he profits from him. Nor does this stepfather of the lad’s. I don‘t care much for that.”
“Perhaps you could use an apprentice?” Andrahar suggested wryly.
“I could, now that things have calmed down, but this lad is sword-mad. If anyone is going to ‘prentice him, it should be you.”
“Very funny.” Cuilast was washing his hands in the hot water, and Andrahar knew that meant he was about to get down to business. “Do you need me for anything else?”
“No, captain, he‘ll stay put now that he‘s out. Just see that you save me some dinner.”
“I’ll do that. How long do you think you’ll be?”
The healer looked at the wounds. “An hour at the most. I do want to make sure I get everything.”
“Well, when you’re done with him, have him put in my bed upstairs. I’ll take the couch.”
“The boy’s slept harder, I’ll warrant,” the healer murmured.
“So have I. And I’m not injured.”
Cuilast smiled, but did not otherwise comment upon the captain’s possible guilty motivation. “As you wish, captain.” Andrahar left him to his work, closing the door softly behind him.
The commander sought out the hostler and found him out in the courtyard again, overseeing things once more, though almost all of the horses had been stabled and fed.
“How is the little lad?” Andrahar asked without preamble. Morlan gave him a hasty bow.
“Very well, sir. Your knight was right, the supper served to calm him down right quick. Does your man have lads of his own?”
“Not yet. Mayhap he’ll have the chance to get some now.” The hostler nodded, and both men reflected briefly upon the unlooked-for miracle of peace.
“The older lad, Brand,” Andrahar said after a moment. “What can you tell me about him?”
Morlan sighed. “He’s a good lad, my best worker, which was why I was so upset when I thought he’d hurt your horse.”
“He says he’s been ‘prenticed to a tanner, and was supposed to start tomorrow.”
Morlan scowled. “He hadn’t told me about that yet. That’s a bit surprising--he’s usually very good about saying when he can’t work because his stepfather needs him. If it’s true, I‘ll be sorry to lose him, and that‘s the truth.”
“He’d only just found out this morning himself, and was none too happy about it, from the sound of things.” The hostler nodded thoughtfully.
“He likes it here, he does, likes messing with the horses. Though how he’ll feel about them now, I don’t know.”
“The lad is a bold fellow--I think you might be surprised.” Andrahar paused for a moment before taking up his interrogation again. Then--“Tell me about this stepfather, and his mother.”
Morlan gave him a sharp look, then apparently decided that no harm would be done by answering. “He’s a no-man’s child--his mother was working in a high-class house when she got him, or so the story goes. Had wisely saved some of her earnings back, enough to keep her for a bit and dowry herself right well. The carter married her when the lad was two years old. They’ve got four children of their own now.”
“This carter strikes him, and often, it would seem.”
Another nod from the hostler. “Aye, that he does. Jacyn’s a hard man. But he’s hard with everyone, not just the lad. And he feeds and clothes him just the same as his own, which some would not. Has never pretended to love him, though--the lad near turned himself inside out when he was younger, trying to earn Jacyn’s favor. The last couple of years, he’s figured out that’ll never happen.”
Andrahar had lost his own father when he was Brand’s age. But though he’d been the son of one of Isfhandijar’s slaves, he had never been in doubt of his father’s love, and that knowledge had enabled him to endure some fairly horrific experiences. He had never and would never sire children of his own, but he had shared the joy of raising Imrahil’s children with him, and now had a surrogate grandchild to spoil. The hostler’s simple statement hinted at years of sorrow and emotional deprivation for poor Brand; even if his mother loved him, a boy reached an age where he desired and needed a man’s kinship and affection.
“The lad’s a good one, captain,” the hostler said, with a sidelong glance at Andrahar. The Swan Knight shook himself out of reminiscence to listen. “Look at little Serl. My wife’s sister’s son he is, and was a sickly babe. Wouldn’t have gotten a job here other than that they asked me to give him a try. And he’s a game one, for all that he’s small, and works hard. But the other boys would pick at him, you know how they are, because he was so little.” Andrahar nodded.
“When Brand came to work, they picked on him as well, called him whoreson and worse things. But he just smiled, acting as if he paid no heed to what they said at all. When they started japing at Serl though, all bets were off, and it’s a wonder heads weren’t broken!”
“He fought with them?”
“Aye. Big, small, one or all, he’d go for them if they went for Serl, and they soon found out that even if they won, they were going to take some damage doing so. So they started leaving him alone, and he paired up with the boy, doing the chores that Serl was ill-suited to, and letting Serl do the things he was best at. The two of them together are better and faster at their work than any three of the other boys.”
“Young Serl certainly seems to care for him.”
“Aye, that he does. Serl’s family scraped together enough money to get the boy a tutor last winter. He’s quick-witted, and they are hoping if he can learn his letters, he can take up clerking as a trade. He’d be better suited to that than most things.” Having seen Serl, the captain could certainly understand that logic. “In any event, Serl’s been teaching Brand his letters when the two of them have the time. I look the other way so long as they get their work done.” The hostler cast an eye over the courtyard, then turned to face Andrahar.
“Brand is no fool either, sir. The tanner is a lucky man--if he treats the boy half decently, he’ll be well rewarded with loyalty and service.”
Andrahar absorbed this information thoughtfully. “Yes, it would seem the tanner is a lucky man indeed. I thank you, good hostler, for your time, and the information. If this Jacyn should come to find Brand, please have him sent to me--I will explain what has happened to his stepson.” Morlan definitely seemed all too happy to leave that duty to Andrahar. The captain wished him well, then went back into the inn to get his supper at last.
The inn’s common room was filled with supping Swan Knights. Andrahar joined Peloren and the other senior officers at the table set aside for them after a side trip to the kitchen to make sure that the healer‘s supper would be set aside and kept properly warm. Cuilast was, despite his sense of humor, one of the best healers Andrahar had ever known, and the captain had lived his life in Dol Amroth, which had a tradition of good healers. The man was dedicated, determined, compassionate and a very, very competent surgeon, and Andrahar was a person who could respect competency in fields other than his own profession.
Cuilast had also driven himself beyond his own body’s capability in the aftermath of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In doing so, he had saved several Swan Knights whom the captain would have thought were doomed to perish. One of them was even going to be able to return to active duty within the next couple of months. But the healer had ended by having to be healed himself, and since then, the senior officers had all made a point of seeing that he was well cared for, so that he might be able to care for them in turn should the need arise.
“Everything all right, Captain Peloren?” Andrahar asked as he seated himself. Peloren nodded.
“Rahur has been carried away, the men are all being fed, rooms have been assigned. Do you want to work them tomorrow, or let them rest?” Spearing a chicken leg on the point of his dagger, Andrahar considered for a moment.
“Tell them sword work is optional tomorrow. Then we’ll see who among the recruits volunteers.”
Peloren chuckled. “My guess is that none of them will. Not everyone is so dedicated as you, Andra.”
“If none of them will, then our standards are dropping, Pel.”
“I don’t think it’s standards, I think they’re all too saddle-sore.”
“They’d best get used to it. The time will come when they have to fight, saddle-sore or not.”
“Indeed. How’s that stable-boy?”
“Cuilast is stitching him up now. Ought to be just about finished, in fact. He wasn’t hurt so very badly, just a gash in his side, and a wound in his arm from the handle of the fork. I’m putting him in my room for the night, and I’ll see about getting him back to his family tomorrow.”
“You want me to oversee things here, then?”
“If you would be so kind. I am sorry to impose upon you, Pel.”
“’Tis no imposition. This looks to be the closest thing to a day off that anyone’s been able to make you take. We’re neither of us as young as we once were, and you’ve been driving yourself without a break since the War.” The Horsemaster bent his head close to Andrahar’s and lowered his voice. “I know you grieve for him still, Andra, but you need to take care of yourself, or you’ll end up like Cuilast, or worse.” As Peloren had expected, the Armsmaster glared at him, and bridled a bit.
“You worry overmuch,” he said stiffly. “And besides, we have all these new recruits to look after. I will be all right.”
“If you say so,” Peloren sighed. “I wish the Prince were here--he is the only one who can do anything with you when you get like this.”
“Our new King requires the Prince’s presence in Minas Tirith for the immediate future. So you will just have to deal with me all by yourself for the next few months.”
“Valar save me!” the Horsemaster exclaimed, tossing back a healthy draught of ale. Rather to his surprise, Andrahar actually unbent enough to chuckle.
The carter arrived just as dinner was done, and could be heard expostulating with Thurfyn out in the hall, before he stormed into the common room exclaiming, “Where’s the boy? I don’t care what he’s told you, he’s to go to the tanner in the morning! And what’s this foolishness about the Swan Knights….” He stopped in his tracks as a room full of warriors in blue and silver all turned their heads to regard him curiously, and some of his bellicose manner dissipated.
Andrahar immediately rose to go to him, and Peloren did as well, ignoring the Armsmaster’s pointed stare that seemed to suggest his fellow captain would do better to stay behind. Peloren was of the opinion that there had been enough blood shed already this day….
“Jacyn Carter, is it?” Andrahar asked smoothly, upon arriving at the carter’s side. “I am Captain Andrahar, Armsmaster and Commander of the Swan Knights. And this is my second-in-command, Captain Peloren.”
The carter was of a height with Andrahar, who was only of middling height when surrounded by Swan Knights of Numenorean descent. But Jacyn’s shoulders were half again as broad, as might be expected in a man who spent his days loading and unloading freight, and his attitude was decidedly truculent.
“My lords,” he acknowledged, bobbing a stiff, uneasy bow. “What is this business I hear about Brand being hurt? I shouldn’t believe it were I you--the boy can be sly when he wishes, and is no doubt feigning injury. I’ll take him off your hands now.”
“The boy is not feigning anything, Master Carter,” Andrahar responded, his voice still easy, though he could tell that Peloren had noticed the tone in it that boded danger. “He was attacked by my warhorse this evening, and in fending the animal off, was injured. Not severely so, but enough that he required the attention of our healer, whose care he is still in at present. Let us remove to a more private place, and I will give you the details of the matter.” He took the carter to the same parlor where Cuilast had been doing his needlework, and found that the boy had been moved, though the bloodstained sheet and the surgeon’s implements still remained. Jacyn looked upon those medicinal relics and his face paled.
“How bad hurt is he exactly? He needs to be at work tomorrow, for his new master.”
There was a sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, and then Cuilast’s voice responded from the doorway.
“The lad will not be fit to work for the next ten days--it will take that long for his injury to heal and before it is safe to pull the sutures.” Brand's stepfather gaped.
“Ten days? The tanner must have his service tomorrow, or I must forfeit the apprentice fee! Surely you coddle him when you say ten days!”
“I am not in the habit of coddling anyone!” the healer answered, his voice frosty with disapproval. “I will prepare instructions for his care for your physician here.”
“My physician? I have no physician! I am but a humble carter!” Jacyn blustered. “I have already purchased a new team with the ‘prentice fee, and cannot afford to refund the tanner his money! The boy’s mother can take the stitches out when the time comes--there is no need for fancy leechcraft!” He gave Andrahar an ill-tempered glare. “You say your warhorse injured him, captain? Then I want to know what you are going to do about this!”
Peloren was watching his colleague with a concerned look upon his face, but Andrahar, his thumbs hooked into his sword belt, seemed calm enough.
“You are correct when you say that I have caused you injury, carter, and I am prepared to recompense you for your trouble. How much was the apprentice fee the tanner paid you?”
“Seventy silver pennies, my lord.” Mollified by the prospect of payment, the carter’s tone was much more respectful of a sudden. And in that moment, the commander of the Swan Knights made a decision.
He has never yet asked to see the boy, nor has he expressed concern for him as other than the means to enrich himself. Andrahar opened his purse, and drew forth a handful of coin. “Here, carter.”
Jacyn extended his hand, and the Swan Knight counted seven gold pieces into it, the equivalent of the seventy silver pennies.
“There is the tanner’s fee in full. Pay the man off.” He counted out another seven. “Here is my apprentice fee for the boy. I am taking him off of your hands.” Beside him, he could hear Peloren suck in his breath in surprise as he counted out yet another seven. “This is for your trouble. And tomorrow there will be three more for you as well, if you will bring your wife to speak with me in the afternoon. Does this satisfy you?”
The carter, stunned, stared down at the double handful of gold coins. “Why yes, my lord!” he managed to stammer at last. Peloren’s eyebrows were crawling up his forehead, and Cuilast was openly grinning.
“Then if we have no further business, you are dismissed,” Andrahar declared briskly. “Remember, Master Carter, tomorrow afternoon! But at your convenience--I will be here all day.” Jacyn nodded, and after awkwardly stuffing the coins into his purse, wandered out of the parlor, apparently in a state of shock over his good fortune.
“Andra, what do you think you are doing?” Peloren muttered when the man had gone. “The boy is too young to enlist.”
“I know that! I will see that he is schooled until he is old enough and can decide if he still wants to be a Swan Knight or any other type of soldier, or if he wants to go into trade instead.” He turned to the Horsemaster, and smiled bleakly. “What else have I got to spend my money on, Pel?” Peloren dropped his eyes, and protested no further, for he knew well that Andrahar had drawn a captain‘s wages for decades, spent almost none of it, and invested wisely. He could have bought a sizeable estate for himself had he wished, not to mention the fact that Imrahil would have gladly given him one. The commander owned his own house, or could put the boy up in the palace with the Prince’s blessing. He could certainly, reflected Peloren, keep the boy in a far better style than that to which Brand was accustomed.
“Well, I think it is a marvelous idea!” chortled the healer. “It will be good for you both, mark my words!”
Andrahar ignored both his levity, and the inference that Andrahar needed help of some kind. “Did you get the lad settled, Cuilast?”
“I did indeed. Wounds cleaned and stitched, the stable sponged off of him, and him dressed in a nightshirt the Cook had from one of her lads who’d outgrown it. He’s in your bed, as you said you wanted him, and still sleeping soundly. Where’s my dinner?”
“In the kitchen. I made sure they saved you a couple of pieces of the apple pie. You still need some feeding up.”
“Excellent, Captain! Much obliged, I’m sure.” He sauntered off, whistling. Andrahar bade Peloren a good night, and went to his room, the finest chamber in the inn, fine enough even for Imrahil, should the Prince pass through. Oil lamps burned on the mantle and the bedside table, and by their light he could see the boy, looking very small in the middle of the huge bed. A white bandage about the right arm above the elbow was visible through the nightshirt sleeve, where the boy’s arm rested atop the coverlet. Leaning over the bed, he felt Brand’s forehead and finding it slightly warm, hoped that Cuilast had not missed anything. It would be a terrible thing for the boy to lose an arm from the comparatively minor wound, but such things did happen.
Once again, peering down at Brand, he was taken with that nagging feeling of familiarity, and suppressing his irritation, brushed the rumpled dark hair away from the boy’s forehead with a gentle hand. The lad stirred slightly but did nothing else, being still deeply under the influence of the sleeping draught.
“Happy birthday, Brand,” the Swan Knight whispered, then went to prepare for bed.
In the small hours of the morning, Andrahar, curled up upon the couch, was awakened by the all-too-familiar sound of a child having a nightmare. He threw off his blanket and moved towards the bed, where Brand lay tossing and turning, and muttering under his breath. Just as he got there, the boy cried out and sat up, trembling and grimacing in pain. The Swan Knight turned up the bedside lamp, which he’d left lit in case the lad should wake up in a strange bed and become frightened.
“Brand, it is all right, you are safe.” The boy looked at him with wide, confused eyes, his pupils almost totally dilated.
“Where am I? Where is my mother?”
“You are in the Vine and Sheaf, lad, do you not remember? The healer had to do some needlework on you.” Brand looked about for a long moment, absorbing his surroundings. His hand made an abortive move towards his side, then he shivered, and seeming more awake, turned his attention back to Andrahar.
“Captain? Is this your room?”
“Yes. I thought it only just, since it was my horse that injured you. Do you need anything? A drink, or perhaps the chamber pot?” Brand admitted that both of those things would be very nice, so Andrahar helped him slide carefully off the bed and showed him where the chair behind the screen in the corner was, then made him wash his hands afterward. He was helped equally carefully back into the bed, then the captain poured him a cup of water from a pitcher which stood handy upon the bedside table. Clasping it in both hands, he drank greedily.
“Bad dream, lad?” Brand nodded.
“About the horse?”
“No sir.” A quiet, hesitant murmur.
“Do you want to talk about it? Sometimes that helps to chase nightmares away.” The boy bowed his head over his cup.
“You would think I was foolish, sir. It is a foolish thing to keep dreaming about--I have never even been to the sea.”
“The sea?” A prickle ran down Andrahar’s neck and back
“Yes, sir. There are all these people running, and no matter how fast they run they can’t get away. And they’re screaming.”
“What are they running from?” Andrahar asked softly, his throat tight.
“This big black wave. It’s so big it blots out the sky….” Brand trailed off when he saw the expression on the commander’s face, and his own face began to look a little frightened.. “I’m sorry, sir,” he quavered, “did I say something wrong?”
Andrahar shook himself and hastened to reassure the boy. “No, lad, nothing wrong at all! It sounds a fearsome dream. You say you’ve had it before?”
A tiny nod. “Since I was little. My stepfather gets angry, because sometimes I wake people up. You’re not angry, are you, sir?”
“Oh no, lad, not angry in the least,” the commander breathed, his mind racing. It could not be Imri, I know that he’s been with no woman in seventeen years. Erchirion possibly, or Elphir? They were both young, but it’s remotely possible, particularly for Elph…
“Brand,” he asked gently after a moment. “Do you know anything at all about your father? What has your mother told you?”
The boy cast his eyes down. This was a subject he was obviously not happy about, and small wonder about that. “Mother says that she has no real way of knowing who my father was, that there were at least five men who could have sired me, judging from when I was born.” He looked back up at the captain. “She gave me a token she’d kept from one of them, just so I’d have something. I keep it secret from my stepfather.”
“Is it at home?” I will have to question the carter’s wife quite extensively this afternoon, it seems.
“No sir, it’s in my belt pouch,” the boy answered, eager to please, in the hopes that that would dispel Andrahar’s strange mood. The Swan Knight rose, and went to the chair where Cuilast had placed the boy’s belongings. He held up the belt and pouch.
“May I, Brand? I shan’t trouble anything else.” The boy nodded, but in truth, there was naught in the belt pouch but a couple of smooth stones and a folded handkerchief. Andrahar held the handkerchief up. “Is this it?”
Setting the pouch aside, he carried the slightly grubby piece of cloth over to the bedside table, and unfolded it, to examine it in the light. And then he got his second shock of the evening, for there was the White Tree of Gondor, and the initial B, and the smaller initial N. The smaller initial was for the maker, Nimrien of Dol Amroth, and as for the larger….
Andrahar remembered the handkerchief, remembered the year the late princess had made matching sets for both of her nephews as a mettarë gift, and realization shot through him like a bolt of lightning, weakening his knees, so that he was forced to pull a nearby chair close and sink into it. At last he understood the nagging sense of familiarity that had plagued him since he’d first seen the boy…
He could dimly hear Brand exclaiming in fearful concern, but the blood was pounding in his ears too loudly for him to discern the words. Over and over, the same refrain kept running through his mind.
This boy is Boromir’s son!