Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 5. Dealings
Four days later in Harondar, the shadows were stretching eastward, and Denethor wiped sweat from his brow, relieved that the abominable day was nearly done. He had begun it in the hidden Ranger post of South Ithilien. From Cair Andros, it had been a swift, three days' ride south and then a sharp angling east to reach the main southern refuge of the Rangers; as luck had had it, the captain there, Erethrin, had been on patrol the afternoon of their arrival. That meant their conference had begun late, and in a corner of the Ranger hideaway, while most men had slept, they had burned the midnight oil going over numbers and maps while Erethrin, fairly spitting fire, had recounted his company's misfortune.
A greying captain of Ecthelion's generation, and who had been in the company that had held the line while the last of Ithilien's people had been forced over the river during the Red Years, Erethrin, like many who had survived them, was driven by that memory, and was not one to mince words where his command was concerned. "We lose too many these days, my lord, and not for want of caution. The Haradrim seem to know where we are. My men are nervous, and every patrol that comes back with gaps in its ranks makes it harder to send the next one out to slaughter. Assuming anyone comes back." That in a tone that had borne witness to a captain's anguish for his dead.
"I have read your reports, and seen the tallies," Denethor had replied. "Why think you that the Haradrim cross Poros so easily?"
"I think Captain Ithrin is grown lax," Erethrin had answered promptly. "Ever he waits to see whether a threat may not be exaggerated, or he mobilizes too slowly, and by then, it is too late. Some of my lads who do cross the river and go into the settlements tell me that Poros is once more the back-gate to Gondor's markets." Erethrin had shaken his head, disgusted. "Ever the lordlings in the south grow fat off of smuggling if war does not fire their loyalty to Gondor. I doubt not that is why Poros lags so in chasing after Haradrim. 'Tis up to South Ithilien, then, to stem the tide, and we pay for it. We pay twice over for one who cannot be troubled to be swift any longer, for 'tis not only smugglers and the desparate who seek their fortune in Harondar."
Which confirmed the observations of the Echequer's men, for if it were common news on the impoverished streets of the Haradric settlements that dotted the waste that was Harondar, then one could be very nearly certain of its truth. Denethor knew well the ways of such wretched villages from his days in Poros, and he had made a note to send someone to discover whether anything else of interest might be gleaned from them. After that disturbing conversation, Denethor had snatched a few hours' rest, then risen and moved his company out with the dawn, but not alone: Erethrin, only too willing to help see this matter to an end (and, Denethor suspected, eager to put at least a few beyond the dangers of the next patrol), had lent him twenty Rangers under one Lieutenant Belethil to add to his escort.
From Ithilien to the garrison at Poros, it had been a day's slow ride. Under a southern sun, in May, the heat was mercilesss, and had made the journey a misery. It had also given Denethor entirely too much time to think, and as in his mind, disparate strands of inquiry began to meet and weave into the framings of a tapestry of wrongs, his temper had grown the blacker.
Thus Denethor had not been in a particularly good mood when he and his escort had at last splashed across the ford and climbed their way up the short rise to the fort overlooking the river. Once within Poros's walls, the Steward's son had immediately ordered one of the guards on duty to take Hildar to the quartermaster, Ingar, and then had ordered another to lead Denethor straightaway to Ithrin. "Of course, my lord," the man had said, his voice betraying his anxiety. "I believe the Captain is with one of the sergeants—"
"Then he may continue that conversation later. Let us go." At that, the man had wisely said no more, only quickly led the way to Ithrin's office where, indeed, Ithrin was conferring with another. Ithrin had glanced up, startled, and Denethor had given him a measuring stare as the guard had (rather unnecessarily) introduced them. The man who had once been his lieutenant had changed little since they had served together. Save for his eyes, Denethor thought as memory fastened upon the look the other had turned on him. Halfway between surprise and dread, he guessed, ere Ithrin had controlled himself, but it had been enough. Something was indeed wrong in Poros, and so Denethor had favored Ithrin with a frosty smile and said only, "Captain, I require your presence in your office immediately. It is time we spoke of your personnel requests."
Denethor sighed softly as he leaned back against the one tree in all of Poros. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a length of string and began idly plaiting it as he reflected on the events of the day. In Ithrin's office that afternoon, he had laid out a number of reports, none of them having anything to do with personnel requests. Rather, they had been the loss reports: first those of Poros, then those of South Ithilien, which latter had a thick stack of copied notes from Erethrin's more specific reckonings. And then the figures from the Exchequer's, followed by Erethrin's report of rumor in the Haradric settlements, taken down the night before, and ending at last with a writ of arrest for Ingar for smuggling. In the painful silence that had followed, when Ithrin had looked up from his perusal of the lot, Denethor had said coldly, "I trust we shall have your full and willing assistance in uncovering just what passes here in Poros, Captain."
Ithrin had of course agreed. How, indeed, could he do otherwise without insubordination? But the edge to his tone when he had acknowledged that none too subtle command had not boded well for him or for Poros, and Denethor would not forget it when the time came to question Ithrin himself. But for the moment, at least his explicit cooperation shall ease some part of this investigation, he thought, for his men now could invoke both Ithrin and Denethor in support of the tasks he had set them. And as was his wont, the Steward's heir had wasted no time in setting to work, identifying obstacles and the means to remove them, setting in motion the plans he had made over the course of their journey south. Thus there were men already going through Ingar's records (and how revealing they were), and some of Belethil's more experienced Rangers were already on their way to some of the Haradric settlements that they knew to see what careful inquiry there might turn up.
Denethor himself had stripped Ithrin's office of all its various ledgers and stationed a pair of guards within that room in order to be certain nothing of value was removed or destroyed. He had then taken over Ingar's cramped office (the quartermaster needing it no longer) and had begun to read through the captain's records, beginning with the garrison's loss reports for the past six months.
Thus far, matters were somewhat inconclusive, but Denethor had begun to notice a pattern in those casualties: of all the losses for Poros, the company that had lost men most consistently was the sixth company. Indeed, a quick headcount revealed that (since their numbers remained the same), that company had been almost entirely replaced by now: none of its original sergeants remained, and but few of its most experienced members. The rest had either been killed—a few here, a few there—or else had been moved to other companies that had no business with the Haradrim.
And is that a surprise that that company served as Poros's informants on matters in the Haradric settlements? he wondered, though it needed no great intelligence to see in that finding something sinister afoot. Losses reported to Minas Tirith had not been so specific: absolute numbers only had come north, and sixth company was small in any case, due to the nature of its primary tasks. And if Denethor's suspicions were correct, if it should prove to be the case that their current members of that company were neck deep in smuggling or other, less savory business...
Denethor jerked the string so hard to finish off the knot that it snapped, and he sighed softly, pocketing the shorter length, as he absently began again with the longer one. He did not want to believe it of any man–he particularly did not want to believe it of one whom he had appointed to a position of trust–but clearly it seemed that the ranks of Poros's spies had been purged in order to replace them with others more biddable or at least more suited to whatever Ithrin's purposes were.
And if a man could do such to his own people, what might he not do to those of a company not his own? Denethor thought darkly, thinking of the gaps in Erethrin's ranks. What have you done, Ithrin? he wondered, not for the first time, nor even the tenth. What have you done, and what have the Haradrim and smuggling to do with it, whatever it be? There was the sticking point, for although there was profit in smuggling, he had no notion yet of how or whether to hang that profit upon the matter of Ithilien's casualties. I suppose it is possible they are separate matters, yet the losses in Poros's informants argues otherwise, for who better to pass goods and contracts secretly? They must, then, be rendered safe for Ithrin to use...
Anger bit into Denethor shoulders, making them ache with tension, even as reason bid him calm himself. For at the moment, there was but one man that Denethor could readily convict, and that was the quartermaster, Ingar. And for the moment, I cannot prove more than that he is a smuggler. The useless youngest son of a lord, he had not had the aptitude to lead men in battle or advise men in council, and so had been shuffled off to count beans at Poros–a respectable enough position, but not one that would gain him any great glory.
But what need of glory when one may line the ancestral coffers with illicit profit? There was a pettiness to the very idea of smuggling that offended Denethor: a man ought to be willing to shed his very blood for his land; to refuse Gondor a handful of coins taxed out of one's profit was therefore contemptible, the very definition of meanness. Ingar was thus an affront to his sensibilities on any number of levels, and Denethor already had calculated with exquisite care the price Ingar and his family would pay. After all, smuggling that was not employed tactically for the sake of information made Poros a disgrace to the army, and reflected poorly not simply on Denethor, but (even worse) on Gondor.
No one comes away from such affairs with clean hands, after all, he thought, remembering the conversation among his escort a few days earlier. I wonder if the hapless Anzîl is among those who know too much about the doings in Poros? He did not know. He hoped not–not that he knew the lad in question, but morale was poor enough in the South between Ithilien and now Poros, and he would not wish a traitor's acquaintance on any man. Smuggling, purges, and disproportionate losses between two garrisons. Where is the link between them? And in his head, over and over again, Erethrin's frustrated, angry complaint echoed: The Haradrim seem to know where we are. Denethor bit his tongue. What have you done, Ithrin?
It was growing too dark to see very well, and his musings could go no further without facts. So Denethor turned from the east and began to make his way back towards Ingar's office in the storerooms, where he would meet with Hildar to discuss the man's findings. As he walked, he inspected his handiwork, the product of his unguided imagination. In another place and time, it might have been called Gordian; Denethor simply called it tangled and shoved it into a pocket in his trousers. This was not the time or place for private pursuits–if his hands craved occupation, then he could tie a hangman's knot as well as any man could. Nevertheless he sighed as he cast quick glance north over his shoulder.
Happy are they who have naught but recalcitrant Rohirrim to deal with!
"Go another round, Eadwin?"
Aragorn shook his head, smiling slightly to himself as he stood near the northern wall and watched as Eadwin climbed painfully to his feet and faced his teacher once again. A few days ago, when he had asked Breca which of the Gondorian lieutenants the Éorlingas looked to for help, the answer had been unequivocal: "You will want to meet Rothil, hlaford. Reliable sort, and he has a heart as well as a head." And indeed, he was, and he had–one of those easily likeable souls, with an open face and an easy nature, the young man had been quick to offer Aragorn his assistance once acquainted with both Aragorn and his mission. It had taken little coaxing after that to convince Rothil to take Eadwin under his guidance.
"That poor lad looks lost here. He should be at home," the lieutenant had opined when Aragorn had first suggested the idea.
"Mayhap, but he is here, and wills to be here, and young though he be, he is a man and has a duty. So we must do something with him. The other Riders watch after him, but as they, too, have their merit to prove to many in Cair Andros, I think it might be best if he had a more well-reputed guide in addition. At the least, it can do no harm to him to learn from you, and it may help you as well," Aragorn had argued. "As the years grow darker, you may see many Eadwins in the ranks. Best to learn how to deal with them and quickly, Rothil."
At that, Rothil had nodded thoughtfully and the matter had been settled. Nor had that settlement proved a disappointment. Aragorn, observing him over the next few days, came to understand why Breca had spoken so well of the lieutenant. For the man laughed often, and if he could be strict when necessary, his men did not fear to approach him. It was no wonder to Aragorn that the Riders liked Rothil best of all the officers in Cair Andros–of all of them, he was nearest to their measure. And indeed, further questioning had revealed that the lieutenant had grown up in the shadow of Halifirien, hard upon the borders of Rohan, by the Mering. Unsurprisingly, he and his family had done much business with the Men of the Mark before, and he even spoke a little of their tongue, though brokenly.
"I fear I have no gift for speaking, sir," Rothil had admitted when Aragorn had tried conversing with him in Rohirric. "But I understand it well enough, and so I hear twice as much as most others in Cair Andros. I do what I can to keep the peace, but this business about Hladred has ripped my patchwork wide. And," he had sighed heavily, "I know I do not hear all, and I cannot help in every case. The newest lieutenant on the roster has much to prove ere he can argue with his elders." That was true enough, though Aragorn might wish it otherwise. At the least, he suspected he now knew how the situation in Cair Andros had gone so long unremarked, and it was hardly Rothil's fault that Hladred's death had proved too volatile an issue for him to handle alone.
For as of yesterday, it had proved too volatile a matter for Aragorn to deal with, either. In the four days that he had been here, efforts to convince Breca and Falthir to speak to each other and not at cross-purposes had borne little fruit, though not for lack of trying. The latest meeting two days ago had been well-nigh disastrous, and yet it had at least shaken Falthir. I hope only that if he feels his back to a wall, he shall not seek to hold all the world at bay still. But I know not what else to do, other than let him flail, and push him towards Breca when he asks for help. For sometimes desperation works in favor of peace, he reminded himself, and tried not to fret unduly. That was difficult, considering the line that he walked–he dared not intervene to the point of rousing either resentment or dependency upon him, which reduced him once more to a Ranger's best weapons: patience and discretion.
Therefore while he tried to prod Breca and Falthir to settle the larger issues between themselves, he and others like Rothil attempted to remedy the lesser problems. Like Eadwin, and a lot of unhappy stablehands. That, at least, seemed to have resolved itself neatly enough. After Rothil had made a point of inspecting the stables in the morning and of speaking both with Eadwin and the chief of Cair Andros's stablehands, prudence at least had dictated that Eadwin and the other lads be allowed to carry out their duties in peace. Aragorn was willing to wager that in time, Eadwin would win the stablehands over, if only because of his puppy-like earnestness. Most men had not the habit of kicking pups, after all.
This morning's challenge, though, was a bit stiffer, for Aragorn had in mind to change the impression that the Riders of the Mark were less than skilled warriors. Having watched men drilling in the yards for three days now, Aragorn supposed that he ought not to have been surprised that the Éorlingas practiced separately from the others—they worked mostly from horseback, and so would cross to the west side of the river to drill.
After due consideration, he had decided that this was unacceptable, and had informed Breca that today, the Rohirrim would drill with one of the Isle's companies. "I hope that you have not practiced solely from the back of a horse," he had added.
"Standard practice, hlaford—we would not wish to be caught in a bind if unhorsed."
"Good. Then be prepared to prove that point," he had replied. "Incidentally, who would you say is your best swordsman?"
The Gondorians had been surprised to discover that they would be sharing their yard with the Éorlingas, but after some grumbling, they had made room enough. Rothil had come to join them as well, having naught to do until noon and a vested interest in improving Eadwin's form. As Aragorn watched, Eadwin blocked Rothil's attack, and, heartened by that success, pressed forward in a burst of energy. He was not bad with a blade, but he certainly had much still to learn, and Aragorn winced inwardly when the lieutenant, with a quick thrust, stepped in close, actually managing to get a foot between the other's legs. When Eadwin stepped back, his ankle caught against Rothil's, and once again, he went down. Rothil offered the sprawled lad a hand up from the ground, giving him an encouraging smile, though he said simply, "Again."
With a sharp nod, Eadwin gamely took up his stance once more, though he was breathing hard and wincing a bit from the bruises. Aragorn could almost feel sorry for Eadwin, but that he had had his share of drubbings in the past. Everyone paid his dues on the practice grounds, be he of the Mark or of Gondor, be he lord or common-born soldier. For the moment, though, Eadwin and Rothil were the only mixed pair on the practice grounds.
For the moment, Aragorn thought, tensing. He had been watching the Gondorians for a few days now, and he thought he had the measure of his target. The object of his attention this morning, a man named Hirion, was a more than competent swordsman, and even now, he disarmed his opponent with a deft maneuver. The other man backed away, arms raised in surrender, which was what Aragorn had been waiting for. Moving quickly away from the wall, Aragorn caught Brything's arm on his way towards the pair of Gondorians. "Follow my lead," he muttered quickly. Then, addressing himself to Hirion: "Well played, sir. Perhaps you and your friend would care for a new opponent?"
Hirion stared at him blankly for a moment, clearly uncertain how to respond to a challenge by Denethor's aide... an aide who (as rumor had been quick to declare) hailed from Rohan himself, appearances notwithstanding, and who would be judging the lot of them. "Ehm... well, Captain...I hardly think that would be fair, two of us against you...." I must remember to tell Halbarad of that courtesy the next time we spar, Aragorn thought wryly.
"Here's a fair fight then," Brything said suddenly, sensing his opening as he strolled forward. The two men of Gondor exchanged glances that told of their doubt on that score, but with a shrug, the other man acquiesced and Hirion nodded. Clearly, they had nothing to lose in this bout. Captain Ælric and the Rider had challenged them, so whatever the Rohirrim got would be only what they deserved, after all.
"Fair match then, Captain. I am Hirion, and this is Talgon," he introduced himself and his friend, who nodded spare greetings.
"Brything of Aldburg," Brything grunted in reply. Hirion nodded
"Whenever you are ready," he said then, as he and Talgon closed ranks and Brything drifted a bit aside from Aragorn for space. A moment, the four of them stood still, and then it seemed they all moved at once. Leaving Brything to deal with Hirion himself, Aragorn took Talgon. His opponent was a solid swordsman, if not a particularly inspired one, and Aragorn had no real difficulty holding his own, even as he kept half an eye on Brything. As he had expected, Hirion and Brything were well matched, the two of them already dueling quite ferociously. Of all the Riders on the Isle, Breca had said, Brything had the most experience. Had the two Gondorians known the half of it, they might have been more wary of him. For Brything alone would have been a match for the pair of them–men who had survived a troll's attack on foot generally did not live by luck alone–which was why Aragorn let Talgon's practice blade slip past his guard to score solidly against his ribs.
"I yield!" he gasped, backing quickly out of the fight. Talgon, soul of courtesy, offered a cheeky salute, then turned to help Hirion as Aragorn withdrew into the circle of onlookers.
"Are you hurt, Captain?" Rothil asked, appearing at his side suddenly.
"I shall be if Brything loses," he muttered in Rohirric, pressing a hand against his side and gritting his teeth in pain.
"And not you alone," the lieutenant replied, glancing around at the circle of men. Both companies had gathered to watch, and the Rohirrim were cheering Brything on, their voices rising en masse above the encouragement of the Gondorians. Then, turning back to Aragorn and seeing him wincing, he shook his head, as he murmured in a low voice, "That looked a hard hit. Are you certain you are well?"
"Quite, thank you, Rothil," the Ranger replied, making a conscious effort to clasp his hands behind his back and ignore the ache in his side as he watched the fight unfold. Brything still held his own, and although it would have been wiser to eliminate his weaker opponent first, he ignored Talgon in favor of Hirion. Clearly, his reasoning matched Aragorn's–the more impressively the fight favored the Gondorians, the better the victory should Brything win the match.
And even if he loses, he ought to disabuse the Gondorians of the notion that the Riders of the Mark are playing at swords, Aragorn thought. It was not even his swordsmanship that impressed the Ranger, but his shield-work. Although it was a dying tradition in the Mark, there were still men who taught the art of defense (and offense) with a shield. It was an art that Aragorn could appreciate only from a distance, as his own shield-work was... 'acceptable.' Elrohir and Glorfindel had taught him enough for their peace of mind, but both had known that he would not be able to rely upon one, for Rangers did not carry them.
Service in the Mark had reacquainted him with the use of one, but cavalry had not the same freedom of movement, nor the proper type of shield for this sort of display. For Brything's opponents, try though they might, could not find a gap in his defense. Indeed, Talgon found himself ducking to avoid being bludgeoned or hit by the rim.
"Valar!" Rothil winced, watching Talgon staggered back, a bit dazed from the clash. "He could take a man's head off if he swung that shield hard enough!"
"Indeed, he could. Once, it was an art much practiced, and the old legends speak of women who were trained to fight solely with a shield. I tend to doubt that myself, but one who knows how to use a short shield is one not to be lightly opposed," Aragorn replied absently, following the fight. There were murmurings from the Gondorians now, as men whispered and watched, wide-eyed, as the bout went on and on. Hirion was beginning to become frustrated, his attacks becoming more rushed as he sought an opening, and Talgon could not seem to keep up with Brything, who ever managed to maneuver around him, putting him in Hirion's way.
At last, though, Hirion swung too wide. In a heartbeat, Brything was upon him. Swinging his shield wide and flat, he used the point to knock Hirion's out of position, then thrust his blunted blade against the other man's chest. Ere Hirion could even surrender, he turned towards the other man, whose expression said that he knew he was beaten. For a moment, they stood facing each other, and then Talgon spread his arms wide–match conceded. The onlookers broke into a frenzy of applause (and a few groans as the newly indebted handed over their coins to eager collectors), but the chorus of Rohirric voices was clear:
"Brything! Brything! Riddermark!"
Panting now, Brything raised his sword in salute, then lowered his shield, grinning at his exuberant countrymen as he wiped sweat from his brow. Hirion stood forward then, looking just as exhausted and a bit bewildered, as the Éorlingas grew silent. Aragorn tensed, knowing that what was said next would determine many things between these two companies. The Gondorian looked his opponent up and down, frowning, 'til at last, Brything asked, in a deliberately off-hand tone, "Fair enough for you?"
Hirion gave a snort of disbelief, shaking his head. "Fair never entered into that," he replied, disgusted, arching a brow. And then, unexpectedly, he grinned. "Another round?" There was laughter at that, and Aragorn was relieved to note that it came from both sides of the circle. The crowd dissolved, breaking into pairs once more, but there were a few more mixed pairs, as men of Gondor and the Mark sought a challenge. Even Eadwin got an offer from one of the younger lads among the Gondorians.
"Well, now, who would have thought it?" Rothil asked softly.
"Who indeed?" Breca asked, joining them. He eyed Aragorn up and down, then said, "And now that you have had your jest, hlaford, will you face a real match? None of this tussling as if you fought your mother."
"For one who has never seen me tussle with my mother, you have a bold tongue, Breca Althyrsson," Aragorn replied. "I...." He paused, lowering his sword as he noticed a lad threading his way through the men, looking straight at the three of them. Breca glanced back as well, and frowned as the esquire trotted up to him.
"Aye, lad, what is it?"
"Your pardon, captain, sir," the other said, nodding to Aragorn and then Rothil ere he faced Breca. "Captain Falthir wants a word with his liaison. He sent me to bring you back straight away, sir."
"Did he now?" Breca replied evenly, then cast a wry look back at Aragorn, though his eyes were serious. "Your pardon, hlaford mín. I suppose Rothil here shall have to entertain you."
"We shall speak later, Breca."
"Aye, hlaford. Let us go, lad."
"I wonder what that means," Rothil murmured worriedly.
"Answers we shall have in good time. For the moment, though... entertain me, if you will," the Ranger challenged, and Rothil grinned as he took up his blade.
Falthir gazed coolly at Breca, who seemed quite as unhappy as he, in his way. Bland blue eyes were wary now, and the Rider's posture was stiff as he sat before Cair Andros's captain. Their most recent... 'conversation'... still hung between them, and the air in the office seemed stale with old animosity. It had been three days since Falthir had acceded to the inevitable and named Breca the liaison for the Rohirrim. During their first, tension-fraught meeting, they had spent little time speaking of anything of consequence, both of them acutely aware of Captain Ælric standing over them, watching them rather as a nanny might watch a pair of errant children. They had spoken in circles that day, touching on issues without ever addressing them directly, feeling each other out, trying to determine, doubtless, how much of the other's willingness to negotiate hinged upon Ælric's intervention. Breca had seemed frustrated then, but he had carefully said nothing out of turn.
The next meeting, one day later, had not gone quite so well, for Breca, with the usual lack of caution for which the Rohirrim were infamous in Cair Andros, had plunged headlong into a discussion of Hladred's death and its significance. Forewarned by his initial painful conversation with Captain Ælric, Falthir had managed to maintain a reasonable tone, for it was not as if they were in Rohan. It was not until he had learned precisely how much the Rohirrim wanted from him that shock had shattered his silence.
"You would want how much?" he had demanded, appalled.
"Hladred Héofsson was the only son of his father–Héof and his wife must be fairly compensated for such a loss, which we account worth twenty silver marks in the Riddermark. Hladred also left a wife with two young children behind, and the widow's fee is one gold mark, or two good horses, which she may choose for herself. I think you may assume she will take the gold rather than the horses in this case. As an officer in his own right, the price of his commission is another eighteen silver, and for injuries to his horse—"
"Injuries to a horse?!"
"—the fine is assessed at ten half-marks," Breca had finished smoothly, and cocked a pale brow at him. "The court fee is one silver mark. All of this is no more nor less than what custom dictates in the case of wrongful death in the given circumstances, as you shall find, should you apply to Aldburg for confirmation. Sir."
"Is this true?" Falthir had demanded sharply of Captain Ælric. "Can this even be done?"
"Unfortunately, yes," the man had replied. "'Tis rare, but it happens sometimes in Anórien that a man of Gondor must appear before an Éorling court. As for the fines, they are not unreasonable under the laws of the Mark. If Breca submits this to a proper high court, I do not doubt that the case would be accepted and a request submitted to the steward for your presence." Even given that Breca had spoken in terms of coins from Edoras's mint, Falthir, adding up the numbers, had quickly realized that the amount came to roughly half his yearly salary. And half of his salary belonged to his family, who used it to help maintain their demesne, or who invested it in his sisters' dowries. In Rohan, such a price would surely suffice to sustain a family for more than a year. And the cost would be all aside from the humiliation of such a case.
"I suppose that interest is due as well for the delay," he had replied sarcastically, seeking a moment to collect himself and to try to think of a way out of the snare.
"Well, if you wish, you could apply for remission of interest at the nearest townstead—Tostigsgrab, I believe—given that you were unable to be judged in a week's time before a lawful court," Breca had answered helpfully.
"I spoke not in earnest!"
"I cannot pay such a fine!" And he could not ask his family for support in this. They were lesser nobility, and hard coin was harder to come by than cows, and his parents were not about to part with a herd of them for a case like this. Even were they, it would be a hardship, and possibly put his family in debt, unless one of his sisters managed to marry above her station. And my sisters are younger than I. Anith is barely seventeen!
"Then levvy coin from your people—from Cair Andros's garrison, since its men had a part in this. Such recourse is not unknown in the Mark."
"I cannot simply demand fees from men under my command!"
"Then apply to your lord, as is customary," had been Breca's comment, and while Falthir had choked over the prospect of involving Lord Denethor in this, Ælric had—thankfully!—intervened.
"You do but hear what would happen were you found guilty before a high court of the Mark. It would be a difficult case to settle, at that. There is little precedent for these circumstances, although Hladred is not the first Éorling to die in the service of Gondor, clearly: many have met their end in the south, princes no less than common Riders. Lord Túrin paid a wergild for Folcwine King's sons, though out of love, rather than punitively. In any case, you are not bound because you have not been made subject to judgment. It would be best if this could be settled without recourse to a formal accusation—" and Ælric had given Breca a significant look "—but if it cannot be, it were best you applied not to Tostigsgrab or Aldburg but to the ambassador at Minas Tirith. I suggest the two of you think now of ways to avoid such a lengthy, complicated, and... distasteful... set of proceedings."
Falthir had spent the next day doing just that, but it was difficult to plan against something he knew so little about. He had even asked Ælric's advice, and received a lecture on law and law-giving in Rohan, 'til Falthir had felt as if he were drowning in folk courts, high courts, king's courts, fines, fees, law by precedent and law as written, and the distinctions between a complaint and a formal accusation. "But what must I do to avoid such?" he had finally asked, and Ælric had given him a bland look.
"I should ask Breca, were I you," he had replied.
"Ask the one who would leave me destitute?"
"Ask the one who may choose not to, Falthir."
"This is blackmail!"
"Aye, perhaps," Ælric had replied, and smiled grimly at his discomfiture. "And it may spare you another interview with the Captain-General, among other griefs. Talk to him. And remember that he is Rohirric." So saying, Denethor's aide had left him to ponder that remark well into the night.
And so, after another sleepless night, here they sat, staring at each other, trying to gauge the other's mood. Breca, clearly, was attempting to discern Falthir's motives, and not without reason. Falthir's esquire had dragged him straight from either the stables or the practice grounds, to judge by his sweaty garb. Probably the practice yard, Falthir decided, noting that dust, rather than straw, clung to him. It was futile to hope that the exercise had worn the worst of the man's resentment away, since it had never done so before.
And while he sat there trying to decide how best to broach the topic, Breca, in a curiously fastidious gesture, pushed his braids neatly behind his ears, so that they did not hang down in his face, and asked bluntly, "What so urgent, Captain, that you would want my objectionable self in your office this day?"
"'Objectionable,' yes, well... we shall not discuss that part," Falthir replied with a thin, humorless smile. "I have spoken with Captain Ælric. I am yet somewhat unclear as to what stage of the complaint we are in, to be frank, but I am certain that you could inform me, since, according to him, your family has a habit of speaking for others in matters of the law."
"Is that what you wish to know, Captain?" the other replied, refusing to take the opening offered.
Falthir stared at him a moment, seething, and Breca simply gazed back steadily, refusing to give an inch. Remember that he is Rohirric! Ælric's voice sounded in his mind, and he throttled the impulse to groan. Clearly, this was going to be played according to Rohirric rules—Falthir would have to ask outright. Mules, every single one of them, Cair Andros's captain thought, and bit down on a sharp retort. Think of applying to Lord Denethor for help in a Rohirric legal question, he reminded himself, which hideous notion cooled his wrath appreciably.
Drawing a breath, he answered as calmly as he could, "No, Breca, that is not what I wish to know." He paused, and then, in a rush of irritation–or mayhap it was inspiration–continued quickly, "Valar help me if I care much what stage it is, or which court this would go to, or whether I would speak for myself or let another do so–none of it matters much to me. I am not Rohirric," he said, turning about the complaint he had heard so often.
"No, that you are not, sir," Breca admitted.
"And since I am not, I shall not tell you what a vain, stubborn, contrary, obstinate, impossible, arrogant—did I say stubborn?—infuriating people I find you to be. Nor shall I acquaint you with the particulars of Lord Denethor's displeasure with the lot of us should I ever need to ask his aid or his father's aid in this matter. My family cannot afford any such wergild as you have named, and I am frankly tired of this. So in short: what do you want, Breca? I want peace in this fort and no further arguments—none at all. And be aware that blackmail is taken very seriously in Gondor," he added for good measure.
Breca gazed back at him, and Falthir had the impression that dumbfounded disbelief and mad hilarity were warring within him. The corners of his mouth twitched, and he sat back in the chair, heedless of the dust, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Your 'in short' is a mile long and more, Captain," he replied at length, tone dripping irony and repressed laughter, much to Falthir's irritation. But when next he spoke, his tone was serious. "Peace in Cair Andros depends in part upon the good will of my men, who are naturally yours as well, I trust," Breca stressed, in such a manner that it was clear he did not trust, and would not short of Falthir's promise on that account.
"Naturally so," Falthir replied in as normal a tone as he could manage. "So long as they also recognize that."
"If that is what you wish, Captain, then you have much to do to prove yourself worthy of them."
"Truly?" Cair Andros's captain raised a brow frostily. "How novel. I was under the impression that your–excuse me, my–men needed to prove that they were worthy to pass judgment on their commanders, given their lack of experience, rank, and rebellious manners. Not to mention, in certain cases, their lack of command of the language of Gondor."
"Those things I can address, if you will agree to treat them not as the leavings of the Riddermark's cavalry or errant boys on a holiday among armed men. They are not. We are not. Most of us have not very much experience and not many of us are lettered, but men like Brything could sit a horse even if a dragon appeared. Brything," Breca added, sensing the lack of recognition, "from Aldburg. You may have noticed him before—he has a scar from an Orc that nearly took his eye, and he is not... how is it called?... not a man of gracious speech, if you will."
"Ah yes. I recall him now." 'Not a man of gracious speech,' indeed! "Very well. What else?"
"In the main, that the the men of Gondor keep their hands off of our horses–dead, alive, or wounded, they are ours to deal with, in the manner that is proper."
"Burying a horse takes time enough that it could risk the company entire."
"But we bury the men if we can. 'Tis no different."
"They are horses!"
"And they are our war-horses," Breca countered forcefully. "We do not eat them, nor tan their hides for clothing, nor burn them only to scatter the ashes, or leave them lying. A Rider without a horse is nothing more than a heavily armed fyrd man, and half a man for having had such a companion. To treat one like a common cow... I would not do it, any more than I would bed my sister. Can you not understand that?"
"Frankly, no," Falthir admitted, and was vaguely pleased to see Breca set back on his heels by that stark denial. "A horse is a useful beast, and a noble one, I grant, but that is all. Such care as you lavish on your horses I prefer to reserve for men."
"Then I can guarantee you nothing, captain. Éothéod we are—horses are in our blood and in our very name."
"And because 'stone' is in the name of my people, I should be inseparable from it? There must at least be some faster way to dispose of corpses than burial."
"This is not a matter of expediency, Captain. In truth, we bear more easily being held callow and untried than breach of this particular custom."
"Then that I call a pity."
"And that we call insulting."
"Which shall never cease to amaze me," Falthir sighed. "Very well. Bury your horses, but hear me now: if it is decided that the company cannot linger, I expect no complaints. You will simply have to find a way to change the ritual if it comes to that. Troublesome as I find your people to be, I would rather your skins intact than your horses in the ground, and being Gondorian, naturally, I never said such a thing, because that would be ill-mannered of me."
Breca considered him for a long moment, then asked, "You said Ælric hlaford spoke to you, Captain?"
"I spoke with him, yes," Falthir replied, hoping that that might count in his favor, much as he disliked to admit that. He still was uncertain what to make of Denethor's aide, and worried what report he might carry south.
"Did he tell you to couch your... objections... thus?"
"I am not in the habit of allowing others to put words in my mouth, Breca," Falthir responded in a clipped tone. "If anything, I learned such manners from the Rohirrim." He had rather expected a sharp retort, or at least some irritation for that last dig. Instead, in a wholly unexpected turn of events, Breca threw his head back and laughed. And laughed. Falthir's astonished puzzlement began to turn towards embarrassed, uncomprehending irritation once more ere his liaison officer at last managed to control his mirth enough to speak.
"That... is the most direct thing you have ever said to me!" Breca exclaimed, still chuckling somewhat. Eyeing Falthir, he gave a sharp nod, as of approval. "So you do learn from us. We may yet come to terms, Captain. May I have leave to go, sir?"
"Are we agreed, then, that Hladred's death shall no more lie between us?"
"Speak to your men about the horses, and give us a fair chance, Captain, and it shall not."
"Then we are agreed," Falthir replied, rising as Breca did. They did not clasp hands—there was still too much resentment between them for that. The Rider gave the chair a quick swipe, which did almost nothing for the dust there, and Falthir shook his head. "Leave it," he said, "I shall have another deal with it."
"Aye sir." And after one more searching look, Breca went. Falthir sank down and laid his head on his arms on his desk. May it be enough! he thought. He did not quite trust Breca yet to deliver on his word, though the man had seemed in an uncommonly good mood. I wonder why? Never mind, I do not care, so long as this ends and there is order in this fort once more!
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