2. Black Swans
Peloren jerked awake as his door was flung open by one of the sergeants, who held up a lantern and snapped, "Out of bed, laddie, the day is wasting and you're wanted on the fields. Wear something the stables won't ruin. Move!"
All along the hall, he could hear similar announcements, and the sounds of sleepy confusion from the newest esquires. Those who had passed through their first year knew to expect it, yet it was somehow never less than unpleasant to be roused out of a sound sleep by the company sergeants, none of whom seemed in the least dismayed by the fact that it was still dark outside.
Peloren groaned as he dragged himself from beneath the covers, fumbled for a match, and lit the candle in the wall sconce near his bed. I hate this tradition, he thought, even as he hurried to his clothespress and snatched the oldest shirt and pair of trousers he owned. As quickly as he could, he stripped out of his nightshirt and dressed, taking care to fold the shirt and replace it neatly in a drawer. Then he went to the washstand, splashed water on his face, ran a comb once through his hair to get the worst of the tangles under control, and hurriedly straightened the covers of his bed. No matter how rushed the morning call was, there was never an excuse for leaving one's room a mess—the sergeants who would be going through the wing while they were away would see to it that that lesson was learned swiftly.
With a last wistful look at his now nicely-made bed, Peloren slipped out into the hall to join the stream of other tired esquires as they obediently made their way down to the fields.
"Pel!" Elethil squeezed past two of their fellows to fall in beside him.
"Good morning?" Peloren muttered, and his friend snorted.
"Not yet," Elethil murmured, running a hand through hair that was still rather mussed and tousled from sleep.
"Hope the barracks haven't spoiled you," a new voice said, and the two of them glanced aside to see Celdir son of Celebrethan giving them a faint smile. Beyond him, Torlas and Iordel were looking on. All of them were sons of minor nobility—out of Linhir and Ethring—and all of them had been a year behind Peloren and Elethil until lately.
But before Peloren or Elethil could respond, another voice spoke: "Not much for them to spoil." Faldion of Morthond had joined them, and the look he gave Peloren and Elethil was decidedly unfriendly. Celdir sighed and gave the other esquire a look.
"Leave off, will you, Fal?"
Faldion did not so much as dignify Celdir with a glance, only pinned Peloren and Elethil under his gaze a moment, then said: "Best you keep up this morn. I'm not running extra miles for a pair of back-stabbers." So saying, he quickened his stride and departed, a few other lads trailing along behind him.
Celdir shook his head in a disdainful manner and said: "Never mind him. Just keep up, for 'tis true none of us want to be running extra miles for anyone save the new lads, eh?" With that, he and Torlas and Iordel hurried away. In their wake, Peloren and Elethil exchanged glances. Clearly, there was more afoot where their return was concerned than they had gleaned last night, and Elethil sighed softly.
But they had little time to dwell on such matters. By the time they had been herded down the lamp-lit streets of Dol Amroth and out to the training fields, the pale grey of dawn lit the sky and revealed a dull landscape. Which meant there was just enough light to pick out stones and other such obstacles on the twice-yearly first day run, which took them over grass and scrub fields, a few pasture fences, and out onto the sands of Dol Amroth's beaches.
There they scrambled up and down the dunes and into the surf whenever the fancy struck the Armsmaster, who led the way with entirely too much enthusiasm for many. The line of esquires began to string out by the time they took their second set of dunes, for though none of them were unfit, not everyone had had the benefit of the ruthless regimen the Swan Knights kept. Peloren found himself blessing Ambraith about halfway through, for if there were one thing infantry knew, it was how to run. Nevertheless, when he glanced over his shoulder and saw the stragglers fading into the distance, he nearly groaned.
Sure enough, just at that moment, Ornendil called a rest break. They came sloshing to a halt in the shallows, and many of them stood bent over, hands on their knees, as they fought to catch their breaths. From somewhere to his right, Peloren could hear the sound of someone vomiting, which made his stomach churn a little in sympathetic response.
"Good morning, lads," Ornendil said then, and a ragged, panting chorus of "Good morning, sir," came back. The Armsmaster smiled benignly and said, "I hope we are all awake now and ready to work, for I promise you, the day is not yet begun." There were a few whimpers from the back ranks, but no more. Nevertheless, that was enough. Ornendil raised a brow. "Come, now, gentlemen, this is nothing! The art of war is what you have come to study, and such pleasure jaunts as this pale in the face of it. Best you learn to look them in the eye undaunted, for it is your task and your duty as a knight, who may at any time be called to command, to know the ways of war—all of them.
"And the first thing you need to know, gentlemen," the Armsmaster continued, "is that there is no such thing as the art of war. War is an ugly, chaotic, and painful phenomenon, and such order as it has requires not the eye of an artisan to discern it but the nerves of a warrior—someone who has enough steel in him to think his way through what most men would rather pass through unconscious.
"But that is not enough, either, for some of the veriest tyrants look upon war unflinching. Thus it is necessary to know what the difference is between a knight and a tyrant, that they are not the same though both face battle open-eyed and awake. You, Hengrist, what is the difference that separates the tyrant from the knight?"
Hengrist, the youngest of the lord of Pinnath Gelin's sons, hesitated. "His aims, sir?" he hazarded after a moment.
"Well, a tyrant aims to oppress with war—"
"Too late—that does not answer the question of why a battlefield is seen differently by a tyrant than by a knight. Angbor, what say you?"
"I... do not know, sir."
Ornendil sighed. "Elethil," he said, and Elethil straightened; "How many esquires did we begin with this morning?"
This was what Peloren had been waiting for, for it was the same point every time. "Thirty-four, sir," Elethil replied.
"Very good. Baragil, how many are we now?" he asked.
"Ah..." Baragil looked to be trying to make a hasty headcount, but Ornendil did not wait upon it.
"Aldan." The Armsmaster turned to address one of the older men who had come from the foot. "How many are we?" Aldan, who bore a scar on one cheek, replied immediately:
"Twenty-seven. The other seven fell off the back of the last set of dunes. All of you swore to let the code of knighthood govern you. Peloren," Ornendil looked at him now, "what is the first rule of that code?"
Peloren took a deep breath, and not just for feeling winded. "'I am a knight of Dol Amroth, and by the oath that created me so, one of a brotherhood that I shall honor and protect all the days of my life,'" he recited, dutifully.
"Then who are your brothers this morning?"
"All those who wear the white belt, all the esquires here, and the seven who come behind."
"And if this were a battle?"
"They would still be my brothers, sir."
"That if I could, I should be bound to protect them if they fell behind, Armsmaster."
"Because," Peloren said, lifting his chin slightly against the heat of his face and the flutter of shame in his breast, "they are my brothers, and I shall do no harm to them, nor let them come to harm if I can prevent it."
"Very well then. What that means, gentlemen, is that if this were a battle, you would have just abandoned your own, half of you without knowing it, apparently. That will not do. You may die for Gondor, lads," the Armsmaster said, gazing about the circle of faces, eyes flashing. "You may die for the innocent, or for the people, or you may die for the Prince, and all that is meet and proper. But you live by and for your brothers. Without them, you are nothing. They do not abandon you and you do not abandon them. That is the difference, Hengrist, between the tyrant and the knight: the tyrant never knows his brother; he does not understand that he has any and so the carnage of war means nothing unless it touches him. Thus it has no horror for him, and so he has no honor, either, no matter his might in battle or daring." Ornendil paused and surveyed his weary band of esquires, and then he nodded, gesturing to the sergeants.
"So, gentlemen," he continued, briskly, "now that your brothers have caught up with you, see that they keep up: no one falls behind this time. And while you run, all of you reflect on the first rule of the code. Let us go!"
"Move, lads! On your way and step to it, this is nothing to sigh over," the sergeants cajoled, giving a little push here and there to urge a man onward.
"Hurry it up!" one of them shouted in Peloren's face. "You're not tired yet, are you?"
"No, sergeant," Peloren replied, for there could be no other answer, and he and Elethil fanned out habitually, the older, hardier students spreading out about their less experienced and more exhausted peers, netting them in their midst so that they could keep them with the group. Every year it was the same lesson, ever since Peloren had come to Dol Amroth, but he had never felt it sting so before.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and glanced sideways to see Elethil looking at him with some concern. He essayed a smile, then forced himself to focus, counting his breaths, emptying his mind of everything but the singular phrase that would not leave him now, and which unfolded in time to the rhythm of his strides:
Knight of Dol Amroth... knight of Dol Amroth... save for one day of my life...
The first week after the induction of new esquires was always the worst. Aches and exhaustion were constant companions, even for those experienced in enduring such weeks. But for Peloren and Elethil, weariness acquired hitherto unknown depths, for though the sergeants and the Armsmaster worked everyone to the bone, they found themselves subject, along with others who fumbled or erred, to an extra mile to run added here or there, or an extra inspection, or to extra chores.
Nevertheless, first week at least kept them busy and left them little time to think of other matters. Thus it was not until the second week that Peloren and Elethil began to take stock of the situation off the training field. The Solstice celebration had given them a taste of their fellows' reaction to their return, but anxious and uncomfortable, and all too well aware of the need to retire early from festivities in order to be prepared for the ordeal of the first day of training, they had kept to themselves for the most part and left early to go to bed. Now that first week was done, the days were still long and exhausting, but there was nonetheless an appreciable respite from the frantic, madcap pace, which let them begin to feel their way into their peers' company.
There was no question but that everyone remembered what had happened, and among the esquires behind them in years, and with whom they had never been close, that showed in their demeanor, in the distance they kept that was almost indifferent, save that it was too wary. It was among those who were but a year behind them, or the few from their own year who had been held back an extra two terms that things became rather more than simply uncomfortable.
On the one hand, there were those like Faldion, the rather dour scion of one of Morthond's more prominent families, who clearly disliked them. He would not eat with them, would not study with them, and barely spoke to them (and then only when it was absolutely necessary). He was undoubtedly the most severe, yet there were a few others, lads with whom Peloren and Elethil had been friendly enough, even if never truly friends, who followed him.
On the other, however, were lads like Celdir, Torlas, and Iordel—lads who had been friendly with Valyon and the other three who had been dismissed, and so also with Peloren and Elethil to a degree, though 'friendly' only, for a variety of reasons—who seemed more or less prepared to welcome them back. In the face of general ostracism, it had been a relief to find others who could sympathize with them, and with whom to commiserate about the masters' habit of late to send a whole squad on a five mile run at the end of the day, just for the failure of a few, all in the name of brotherhood. It put reservations at a distance—at least for a time.
"I say the masters and sergeants have it in for you," Celdir remarked one evening, as their squad came panting back from one such jaunt along the scrub-covered plains. The five of them collapsed about the water barrel, and Peloren, without waiting to strip off his shirt, grabbed the bucket, dunked it in the barrel, and then upended it over his head, closing his eyes as the cool water streamed off of him. Iordel jabbed his arm.
"Pass the pail—we're just as hot!" he said, and Peloren handed it over without comment, leaning against the edge of the barrel. Beside him, Elethil sat with his back braced against it, heedless of his soggy seat and wincing as he rubbed at the scratches on his hands. He had tripped at one point, and fallen into a patch of the prickly vegetation, and the stuff had clung to him, tearing into flesh and cloth as he had struggled to free himself and continue on.
"You all right, Elya?" he asked, and Elethil glanced up and nodded, tiredly. Peloren sighed and let himself down beside his friend, who gave him a slight smile. Celdir wandered over to squat before the both of them, wincing a bit. But he gestured to them, and continued:
"The masters want you out, you know. They'll keep this going until you crack and turn it all in," he warned, and wiped sweat from his brow.
At that, Elethil stirred uncomfortably, and glanced at Peloren. Elethil, who was as provincial as Peloren and even more so, and the late-born son of a large but minor family, was not one to speak much, particularly not when he had a friend hard by willing to do it for him. Peloren, however, did not immediately answer Celdir.
"You really ought to see about salve and some bandages for those—it's full armor tomorrow, you know, and the gauntlets will rub," Peloren told Elethil instead, ere he addressed himself to Celdir's claim. "We were cast out for a year, Celdir. 'Tis not so strange they should wish to test our resolve, to see whether we merit the clemency granted us."
Torlas snorted at that, and Iordel sighed, and muttered, "Valar, that is sad!"
Puzzled, Peloren frowned up at the pair. "What do you mean?" he asked after a moment.
"Listen, Pel, Elya," Celdir said in a conspiratorial tone, drawing their eyes to him once more; "we all—" and here, he gestured to himself and to Torlas and Iordel "—understand what happened last year. There is no need to keep to the platitudes."
"'Platitudes'?" Elethil hesitantly interjected, clearly as confused as Peloren.
"The masters are under orders, we all know that—the Prince has ruled, and of course, they all know Imrahil very well and like him. Of course they do. Everyone does, but it seems they've let that liking get ahead of clear sight if they're trying to be rid of you."
At this, Peloren shook his head, sharply, and then pushed his hands through sopping wet hair as he tried to sort out what he was being told. "A moment, Celdir," he said at length. "I fear it has been a long day, and I am weary and in want of a bath and supper, so you must forgive me the question, but... what is it, precisely, that you are trying to say?"
"We could all use a bath and supper," Celdir acknowledged, smiling a little, though his eyes were serious, still. But then he continued: "The masters want you gone from this company, but they cannot simply throw you out, so they shall try to wear you down 'til you leave of your own will. That is likely why they leave Faldion and the others alone, though they hardly treat you as brothers ought. Mayhap there is some agreement there, at least with the sergeants, I do not know—you know how it can be, after all, if they want things done on the quiet. But make no mistake: this is not simply a test of your resolve, nor of your merit. What on earth would need testing where merit is concerned, after all?"
Upon this pronouncement, Elethil and Peloren exchanged frankly disbelieving looks. "We were sent down for helping to attack another esquire—" Peloren began, but Celdir shook his head, waving a hand.
"Yes, of course, and that was regrettable. A definite breach of the Code, there is no question of it," he replied, quickly. "But they ought to have seen it coming—they were the ones who let a Southron in, and at Imrahil's insistence, if you remember. 'Twas he that pleaded with his father for the favor, and the Prince granted it—he does love his son, after all. Of course there would be trouble, 'tis only a pity it caught the six of you. It could have been anyone, given the... provocation. I ought to be thanking you for saving me from it.
"In any event," Celdir said, while the two esquires stared speechless at him, "you will need to be careful. The sort of contempt Faldion harbors tends to breed, and who knows how far it may go? Meanwhile, there are others a little more clear-sighted you can count upon for help, if you need it."
"'Help'?" Peloren repeated, and Celdir quickly held up his hands in a placating gesture.
"To be sure, we would not wish to interfere with your affairs," he assured them, and the other two lads nodded. "But if you did want some... assistance... at any point, you have only to ask. We've not got any say with the masters, of course, but we can deal with Faldion if need be..."
"I... do not believe that will be necessary," Peloren managed, not liking the ideas imagination presented him of what 'help' might amount to. "Imrahil needs our help," Valyon had told them, when he had gathered his chosen friends and followers in his quarters. For that matter, Celdir had a sharp tongue, and a sharper temper, that had landed him in trouble before, not that that had spared his victim…
"Well, call upon us if you should change your mind." So saying, Celdir gave them a friendly smile, then he, Torlas, and Iordel departed, chatting lightly amongst themselves, while Peloren and Elethil sat upon the muddy ground beside the water barrel, gazing after them in something like incomprehension.
"Faldion on one side, Celdir on the other..." Peloren murmured at length, feeling an unpleasant thrill of foreboding.
"And where are the masters in all this?" Elethil wondered aloud, giving his friend an anxious look.
Peloren bit his lip, thinking of Ornendil and of the sergeants who had run them ragged that first week and who hovered ever ready to send them off on long runs or to the kitchens for galley duty or any of many other unpleasant chores.
"I don't know," he said finally. "I just don't know."
Which, of course, was a lie. Or at least, it felt like one as the days wore on, and still, they continued to be singled out for some extra chore or exercise by officer and sergeant alike. It was not as if such attention were wholly unexpected, but in light of that conversation with Celdir and the others, it was impossible not to wonder whether there were not indeed some effort to push them to fail and so to push them right out of the company.
Nor was that the worst punishment. Granted, such singular treatment made them conspicuous, and left them shouldering more burdens than others, but at least in such instances, they were left mercifully to their own devices. But there were in addition all the times when everyone in their company endured an additional drill right alongside them. All of it in the name of brotherhood, of course:
"You will pass together or you will fail together," Sergeant Voradril, one of Ornendil's helpers, snapped, repeating the dread chorus. "Two miles, down through the hills and back—leg it, lads!" And off they went, the whole company, stifling their groans while Peloren and Elethil tried to ignore the glares from some of their fellows.
"They always wait 'til we make some mistake," Peloren panted in an effort to justify the pattern, as he and Elethil and a few other lads clambered over the sand hills a little below the city. "Happens to everyone sometimes."
"And if you believe that, then I'm a Southron," Torlas shot back, ere setting his teeth and grimly continuing onward up the slope.
"He's right, you know," Elethil said quietly, and Peloren sighed, unable to refute it. Not when he had such a stitch in his side. Not when he half-believed it himself.
Nor was even that, in the end, the worst of it. The masters could make matters difficult for them, could catch them for any and every misstep and failure of form. But even they could not be everywhere. There were simply aspects of life in the Fledglings' Wing that knights no longer partook of; however, there was practically nothing an esquire did that could not be shared with his fellows. Which meant that if someone took it upon himself to pull a prank or quietly discipline a brother-esquire, there might be no one to prevent it.
Particularly if the victims were Peloren and Elethil, no one might want to prevent it, even if it did bring down the wrath of their betters upon a whole squad or the entire wing.
"Are you sure you don't know who it is?" Peloren asked Celdir once, as the two of them paused from a punitive mucking out of the stables. The night before, someone had spilled ink on the threshold of Elethil's door. It might have been an accident. Then again, if it had been, the responsible party would have tried to clean it up, and failing to erase the mark, would have brought it to the attention of the servants for help. The sergeants had had but to walk down the hall that morning to discover the mess, and when no one would own up to it, had contrived to saddle each and every esquire squad with some noxious chore at the end of the day. Peloren supposed he ought to be glad he was simply mucking out the stables, for at least he loved horses. Faldion's squad had drawn latrine duty, which was far worse. And not only for them! Peloren thought, forebodingly.
Celdir leaned on his shovel and shook his head, wrinkling his nose at the smell of soiled hay. "One of Faldion's followers, obviously. But I do not know which one, though I doubt it was Faldion himself. You know how the Morthond lads are—not an inventive bone to share among them!"
"You really haven't heard anything?"
"Nay, though I've listened. Look, Pel, you know how it is," Celdir replied, as he dug in again. "My sympathies are known; there's not a lad on the other side who would breathe a word of anything in my hearing, or that of any of my friends. Of course not. We can vouch for you and Elethil, but what of it? The sergeants or the officers may decide to leave you be sometimes if we do, but that just means someone else will make you pay for it later on, and the whole thing goes round. You know how it's played."
And indeed, Peloren did. He knew it, and Elethil knew it, for they had all relied on the system to teach a brother-esquire a lesson or two before, all on the quiet and away from knightly eyes. For brothers were to correct each other—that was written in the Code. Of course, 'correction' meant different things to different minds, and sometimes, if the matter were uncertain enough, someone who disapproved and knew something would bring it to the ears of a sergeant, and then there'd be trouble for a day or a week. But sergeants, too, had once been esquires; even captains had been, and so there was a certain tolerance of such things.
So now it was their turn to be 'corrected', and Peloren could gauge the measure of his and Elethil's acceptance in the stony silence from the opposition, and the utter shutting out of Celdir and his lads. Not that Peloren wanted overmuch to do with Celdir and his lot anyway—they might be friendly towards him—Or friendlier, at least, Peloren thought, for even they kept a certain strangely fastidious distance—but clearly their sense of what was owed to whom had not changed much since that fateful day last summer. A shield they might be against the accusatory looks and silences of others, but Peloren found himself wanting to wash his hands after being in their company, and was just as glad to see them withdraw again until the next incident required a show of support.
Not that anyone else seemed to mark that line between him and Celdir's lot—to Faldion's eyes, and no doubt even to some of the sergeants, there was no difference to be seen between them, save that Peloren and Elethil had got caught, while Celdir, Torlas, and Iordel and the others had not been. And so the thing went round.
"I do not know which is worse," Elethil complained in an undertone one evening, perhaps a month later, as the two of them sat up late in the library of Dol Amroth, poring over a compendium of the chivalric laws that Master Illian had set them to study. Elethil folded his arms over his notes and laid his head upon them. "The blisters from ten extra miles this week or the blistering glares from the others!"
"You could study with Torlas over there if you want friendly eyes," Peloren muttered absently, and Elethil put his head in his hands.
"Can you be serious a moment?" he demanded in a low voice, without looking up.
Peloren blinked to clear his vision, and he watched the blur of lines become letters once more. In the year 1450 of the Third Age, it was decreed that men-at-arms must swear an oath of allegiance to serve Gondor above all other loyalties, in order that there should be no question of the king's supremacy over all his vassals... He sighed and pushed the book away.
"We should not talk about this here," he murmured, for they were not the only ones to burn the midnight oil this night. In addition to Torlas, seated across the room, light spilled from the chandelier above another table, illuminating blue tunics and weary, youthful faces, and there were a scattering of other, isolated readers who used the smaller lanterns in the centers of the tables to light their way through the library's tomes.
"Then let us leave this place. Truly, Pel, do you believe we will get any further tonight?" Elethil asked. We should try, Peloren thought, but any resolve melted swiftly away in the face of Elethil's expectant air and his own sore muscles. He closed the book, and they rose and made their way out, with the heat of invisible eyes boring into their backs it felt. At this hour, the halls were deserted, save for the occasional sentry, who scrutinized them, but let them pass without a word, recognizing their tabards. At length, they came to the esquires' quarters, and since Peloren's were nearer, they ended in his room.
With a soft sigh, Peloren leaned against the wall for balance and removed first one boot, then the other. That task accomplished, he then went and flopped wearily down upon his cot. Lying on his stomach, he gathered his pillow in his arms and laid his head upon it. Elethil gingerly took a seat at his desk. "What is the matter, Elya?" Peloren asked around a yawn. "Other than the obvious, I mean."
"Has anyone been in your room?" Elethil asked.
Peloren frowned. "Somebody came in two weeks ago. Hid all my notes in different places. Last week, somebody else tore the sheets off my bed, left things a mess—Sergeant Barcalan was not pleased. He had all my squad on scullery duty, helping the cooks scrub pots for the third shift for two nights. Other than that, I do not believe so. Why?"
"Sometimes I wake up because I feel as if I am being watched. Sometimes, I even think I hear the door close," Elethil replied.
"Have you caught anyone?"
"Do you stand straight up in bed for anything less than the sergeants calling us to some unannounced exercise?" Elethil sounded frustrated. "I would say it is Faldion or one of his lot, but I cannot prove it. Everyone is weary, I know that, but with the exception of you, no one else is pulling extra shifts in the stables or guard duty or going for runs with the sergeants like I am. By the time I go to look, if ever there were anyone, he is gone."
Peloren thought about this a moment. Then: "So will you tell the sergeants?"
"Tell them what? That I wake up in the middle of the night because I think someone may be spying?"
"Then go back to sleep," Peloren advised, with a helpless shrug. "It cannot be that difficult!" Indeed, the difficulty, as Elethil had intimated, lay in being wakeful, and he yawned again. To his surprise, his friend ducked his head, face flushed, and he squirmed a little, as if with discomfort. "Elya?"
"I do try to sleep, but they all know how we did it by now," he muttered. "The story has been out for more than a year. So when I wake up, I cannot help but think... well, you know."
"He bit me!"
"Close the door!"
"SIT ON HIM!"
And in the chaos that had followed, there had been the flash of dark eyes in a dark face, and he still did not know whether that was fear or anger or surprise. Not until Andrahar's bound form had fallen limply to the floor, faceless, senseless, not a friend, not a foe, not even 'Southron' or 'bastard,' just a body—all skin and feeling, blood and bruises and suffering... We shall kill him if we continue!
Peloren shook himself. It was a too-familiar memory, and had visited him many a night when the mind, heedless of the body, goes on its own paths. And sometimes, the memory was reversed, and it was he who awakened to hands without faces that gripped and clawed and battered, and Peloren would jerk awake in fact then, all in a sweat and panting, his flesh crawling. Elethil's troubled face, and the shadows beneath his eyes, Peloren understood then from his own long nights, though at least he had never dreamt—if dream it ever was—of someone watching over him, as if waiting to attack.
But perhaps he shared that fear even so, on some level, for his dreams had not been so bad until they had rejoined the esquires in the Fledglings' Wing. Thus when he spoke, it was not only for Elethil's sake:
"Even if they do watch, they shall not act," Peloren said softly. "If they did, they should be no better than us, and have no ground for their contempt."
"I know that," Elethil replied, drawing his knees up and clasping his arms about them as he stared at the wall over Peloren's head. "I don't believe it, though."
Because after all, we did it. The self-accusation hung in the air, and Peloren sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. And tired as he was, he had very nearly fallen asleep, despite Elethil's presence, when his friend muttered: "Sometimes I think what I hate most is that it could have been any of them. Andrahar never had any friends, save Imrahil. Any one of them would have done it if Valyon had asked him. Not that you would know it now."
"Celdir's friendly enough—"
"Oh, he's friendly enough, aye," Elethil said darkly, and snorted. "He's the one who said he could've done it, after all. But he didn't, and he doesn't stay about, you know, other than to make a show of standing with us. If I told him about this, he probably would declaim it in the hall and stay up a night or two at my door. As it is, if he keeps on as he has been, then soon enough, Imri won't be the only one with a pet, but I'll say I like the prince's care better!"
Peloren was silent a long moment, before he asked quietly, "Do you want me to ask Faldion about nightly visitations?"
"I don't need to be your pet, either," came the sour, sharp retort.
While Peloren struggled to find a response to that, there came a rustle of clothing, ere a hand brushed his back. "I'm sorry," Elethil sighed. "It's just that I'm tired."
There was the crack of bones then as Elethil stretched, which announced his friend's intention a moment before his words did: "Good night, Pel."
"Mm," Peloren managed, listening as Elethil made his way out and shut the door quietly behind himself. He lay there awhile longer himself, thinking that he ought to think, that he ought to reflect on what had just been said for a time, but it was exhausting even to contemplate the effort of thought. Instead, after a little while, he rolled onto his back, undid all the ties and buttons and buckles, and managed to crawl out of his clothes without ever rising. Kicking them onto the floor, he burrowed under the covers and was instantly asleep.
Despite common wisdom, which held that unhappiness made time crawl by, summer all too quickly gave way to autumn. The winds grew brisk and chill, and morning runs more often left one with mud up to one's knees as the sergeants tramped right through the boggy swatches of the field, undeterred by the puddles. Nevertheless, mud or no mud, there were fewer added miles, for summer had taught the stragglers endurance, and with the help and encouragement of their fellows, the esquires finished together.
Meanwhile, training continued as ever it had: after the inevitable morning run and breakfast, it was off to arms practice for half the company, while the other half practiced horsemanship. By midmorning they would switch off; lunch was set promptly at noon, exercises continued afterwards for some hours, and then everyone dispersed for the rest of the day to the more scholarly and courtly subjects they were required to learn. Supper came and went, and afterwards, for those who had managed to incur the displeasure of their instructors, there were the additional chores.
The pranks continued apace, from time to time landing Peloren or Elethil in trouble when they were made late due to missing articles of clothing or 'lost' books, or simply being 'accidentally' pushed into a watering trough or other, more noxious substances. But neither reported any of it, either—not only was it likely to arouse a deeper antipathy towards them, but they knew the game and how it was played. One did not complain. One endured, or one left the company. That was the way of these sorts of things, and after having been once expelled, neither Peloren nor Elethil were about to surrender their places.
Beyond that, however aggravating the hypocrisy of their peers, however maddening their cool condescension, it did not change the primal fact: none of them had actually attacked and beaten a brother-esquire. Not even Celdir, whose gestures of fellowship both of them had begun to feel they could have done without, since they occasioned more abuse than they could possibly alleviate (which was not much in the first place). And so they put their heads down and endured. Mid-term trials came and went, and still they struggled on.
The only break in the grim contest of wills for Peloren came during the hours he spent in the stables or on the fields with his horse, Lightfall. There at least he could be free both of false friendship and the open contempt of the rest of his peers, absorbed by his work. For like many sons of nobility, he had grown up around horses and learned early to ride, but there were days when he wondered whether he might not be better off breeding horses for knights than attempting to become one. Certainly the care and breeding of horses was a skill the Swan Knights liked to cultivate in a lad who seemed apt, and Peloren had always made a point to volunteer himself for stable duties. Whatever the opinion of the Horsemaster and his assistants about Peloren where other esquires were concerned, they seemed to trust he would never harm a horse.
And truly, he never would: he had always loved them, and for whatever reason, they seemed mostly to love him in return. Thus, even as it had ever been at home, when he had been a boy and smarting from his father's opprobrium, solace was a stable filled with horses eager for a brush.
"And you are always wanting a brush, aren't you?" he asked, clucking his tongue at Lightfall as he knelt and sponged mud off his horse's legs with warm water one late October afternoon. Lightfall snorted, and his velvety nose came to rest just there, at the juncture of Peloren's shoulder and neck. His master shivered at the ticklish feeling, though he quickly reached up and laid a hand on the gelding's long face, stroking reassuringly.
Théorwyn, the broad-faced Master of Horses, had had them practicing at quintain that day—or at least, he had had the esquires he deemed trustworthy with their mounts and experienced enough as riders tilting at it. There were still plenty of pages, and even esquires, whom he held to more basic drills which, even if they required a definite skill—such as tilting for rings—did not involve the risk of being bludgeoned off the back of one's horse if one failed to perform the drill properly. Peloren, who had ever been apt at such things, had been practicing with quintains since soon after his arrival in Dol Amroth, and was a regular at the esquires' jousting boards.
Today's exercise had been complicated by combining it with another drill: just beneath and beyond the quintain, a war dart had been planted into the ground to either side, forming a sort of gate through which a horse and rider could pass. They were just short enough in the haft that it was impossible to reach them without leaning down, but in theory, that was no trouble: the aim was to hit the shield with one's lance, duck under the counterweight, and grab one of the darts as one passed by.
"Once you have hit the shield," Théorwyn had instructed, "lean to your left and take one of the darts, then make for the end of the field at the gallop. You have ten tries: you must hit the target stationed there at least five times. If you fall below that, you will report to me this evening and you shall repeat the drill until I am satisfied.
"Whether or not you hit your targets within the ten passes allowed, once you attain five hits, you will switch to the other side. Once you have hit the shield, drop your spear and grab the dart. Remember that in a battle, spears break easily and often, but with some practice, you may be able to acquire another from an enemy or else from the ground—as in this case. Again, in ten passes, your aim is to hit the target five times. Should you find this too demanding, remember that you are only being asked to complete a maneuver properly half the time. Which means," Théorwyn concluded, eyeing the ring of esquires, "that the other half of the time, you have failed, and on the battlefield, failure tends to end in death—your death, or worse, your brother's. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," the esquires had replied.
"Excellent. Leave your shields by the railing, then, and remember: correct each other's faults when you see them, for the esquire company that most reliably hits its targets in ten tries is exempted from the five mile run at the end of the day." With that, Théorwyn had left them under the watchful eyes of two of his assistants and urged his own mount over to where the more inexperienced riders were congregating.
It had been a challenging exercise, one that had in fact ended with several esquires falling off their mounts—not because of the quintain, but because they would wait too long to make a grab for the dart, or else would not grasp it firmly enough. Off-balance, it did not need much to send them tumbling. Fortunately or unfortunately, however one chose to view the matter, the ground was damp and muddy from an early morning shower, which had cushioned the fall, even if it had left them covered in mud. Matters grew even more complex when the assistants began moving the targets, forcing riders to swerve hard to the right or left, or even to come around again afterwards and dart back across a waymarker pole in a certain amount of time if they wished their pass to count.
But Peloren had enjoyed the exercise, and in fact, he and Lightfall had done quite well, averaging five hits in nine passes for his off-side, and five in seven for his lance-side, even on the more difficult courses. Lightfall had risen to the challenge magnificently as well, the gelding pinning his ears back to run flat out for the waymarkers, shying not at all from the ribbons the two assistants had attached to them, and which fluttered in the breeze. Peloren had managed to keep his seat throughout, though there had been one close call when Lightfall, in his enthusiasm, had taken a sharp turn a little too quickly for Peloren, who had not managed to pick up the war dart on that pass, too intent on staying upon his horse's back.
"Wise choice," one of the assistants, Evarin, had told him, when he urged Lightfall back around to rejoin the others. "It may cost you in the end on this field, but in a real fight, you want to stay horsed at all costs if you're in a charge. If it is between a spear and your seat, always prefer your seat and trust your horse to carry you through it to another chance to arm yourself. Always assuming you haven't your sword, of course."
"Thank you, sir," Peloren had replied, and Evarin had reached up and given him a pat on the knee.
"Back in line—let's see you do it again!"
In the end, Peloren's company won the contest handily, which meant for once, there would be no need for him to spend his evening hours on additional exercises. Moreover, since Master Illian had not given them anything new to study, and he had already read through the treatise previously assigned, he had found himself with that rarest of commodities: free time. And so despite the damp fields, he had taken Lightfall off for a quick ride, eager to be away from others for a time, and it had worked: none had troubled them, and he had returned to a nearly empty stable, save for the pages and stable lads.
As he stooped again with the sponge to attend to Lightfall's hind legs, a shadow fell across the stall, and a few muttered curses reached his ears ere the stall door adjacent to Lightfall's squeaked. Above him, Lightfall nickered softly and snorted. Another snort answered as horsy greetings ensued. Peloren ran a towel over one leg, then rose, pail in hand, to see to the other. On the other side of the divide, Aldan started, his eyes widening slightly at his appearance.
"Give you good day," Peloren offered politely, if a bit coolly. Not that he held any particular grudge against Aldan, but he did not know him, either. They were in separate squads, and whenever their paths had crossed, they had never found much to say to each other. Not that that was surprising, even: Aldan was older for one thing—married already and with a child on the way according to the talk in the halls. He had also most certainly heard enough about Peloren not to wish to cultivate any too close ties, though Peloren did not know whether he followed Faldion or simply had decided to stay well clear of trouble. And like most of the esquires who had been admitted after some exemplary service in the foot, he tended not to mingle overmuch with those of higher birth anyway. No doubt he would eventually overcome that reluctance, but it usually took the better part of a year for such men to begin to shed the habit of deference.
"Good day," Aldan replied after a moment, though his face—or rather the mud—told a different story. He returned his attention to the cinch, and to stripping the tack from his mount. Hauling the saddle and blanket off, he set them on their stands, then reached for the brush... only to fumble it. It fell to the ground with a clatter. Aldan sighed, and to Peloren's surprise, asked, "Could you do me a favor and fetch that?"
Am I the new stable boy now? Peloren wondered, but checked the welling up of caustic feeling when he saw the look on the other's face. And so he said, "Just a moment." He moved to set his pail down, with an admonishment to Lightfall not to move, then ducked out of his stall and into Aldan's, stooping quickly to pick up the brush. As he handed it to the other, he looked him up and down, taking in the rather impressive amount of dirt and grass stains, and asked, "Long day in the saddle?"
"In a manner of speaking," Aldan grunted, raising the brush a little as he finished, "My thanks. It's just that I don't know if I can manage bending over right now, and squatting is out of the question."
"What happened?" Peloren asked, as he made his way back to his own stall.
"Master Théorwyn thought we should learn how to mount at speed." Peloren grunted. He remembered that drill, though he had learned it young, on a whim. Days he had spent in the sandy training corral at home, endeavoring to swing himself up into the saddle while his horse trotted along on a lead line that he had tied to a central post. He had eventually discovered that a twelve year-old boy needed a running start to manage the trick, though that presented its own difficulties. A few years' growth and practice had let him do it much more easily, but he had had his share of falls—as had Aldan, who apparently had fallen often enough to be assigned the task of stabling the practice horse.
"Without stirrups, I take it," he said, nodding to the saddle, which had none.
"Quite," Aldan replied, and shook his head as he began plying the brush over his mount. "Why, I do not know. It seems a fancy sort of trick to be learning, but not much use."
"Oh, I shouldn't say that," Peloren replied, mildly. "'Tis very good for impressing the lasses, for one thing," he said, and actually got a snort and a bit of a grin for that jest. "And it is some use, actually. My father says he has seen riders who have lost their horses in battle take an enemy's with that trick. But since there is another in the saddle, it needs to be learned without using the stirrups. And of course, one learns to pull the other out of the saddle at the same time."
Aldan harrumphed at that. "Mayhap it will serve some. Not me, though. Give me a pike rather than a remount and we shall all do better for it."
"When do you fall off?" Peloren asked, swiping at Lightfall's legs once more with the towel, ere he rose. Peering over his mount's back, he raised a brow at Aldan. "Before or after you reach the saddle?"
"Doesn't matter which. Mostly before, but the rare occasions I manage to get into the saddle, this lad'll stop suddenly, and the next thing I know, I'm back where I began the day—flat on my back," Aldan replied.
"Are you jerking the reins when you mount?"
"Master Théorwyn had them tied up out of the way so there was no risk of that."
Peloren grunted, eyeing the horse. "And he is no novice, either..."
"How do you know?"
"Well, Master Théorwyn would never use an untried horse in the ring with new riders. There is time enough to make a proper horseman of you, after all. Besides, this fellow has too wise an eye to be new, haven't you?" Peloren asked, coming around to face the horse. He blew gently into his face, wrinkled his nose when the horse did likewise, then reached and began scratching his neck. "What's his name? Do you know?"
"Ilmar, I think." Aldan's brow creased as he watched the horse butt Peloren gently in the chest. Peloren, in response, began scratching the starry patch between his eyes. "You're certain you don't know each other?"
"Quite certain. He's new since last year, at least—probably just retired by one of the lords in the area, and bought expressly for practice. And he's a fine lad. Aren't you?" he asked Ilmar again, then turned back to Aldan. "Have you ever had much to do with horses?"
"No. I was born down in Roper's Lane in the city, and my wife is still there. Never had need of a horse, nor the means to keep one."
"And does he stop for others?"
"Nay, only for me. Though I am not the only one to miss the saddle," Aldan declared, wincing slightly as he arched his back and his spine cracked audibly.
"Hmm. Are you worried about riding him?"
Aldan snorted. "Do I look a fool to you?" he demanded. "Of course I am!"
"That's likely it, then. He knows you don't want him to move, so he stops as soon as he can," Peloren said. Aldan was giving him a skeptical look, and Peloren shrugged. "I suppose it might be otherwise, but I have seen horses do such before. They know our hearts better than we do most often—you may think you wish him to continue, but he knows otherwise and does as he feels bidden."
Aldan sighed, a frustrated sound, and he ran a hand over the bottom portion of his face, scratching a bit at the beard growing in there. Then he shook his head. "If that is so, then it shall be a long four years, if I manage even one!"
"But the horse you use ordinarily, do you trust yourself with him?"
"More or less, for what we have been taught, but that is a different matter. 'Tis nothing more exciting than a canter, and none of this leaping onto his back," Aldan replied.
"You should try it with him. If you trust him more than this fellow, you may have some success."
"I'm expected elsewhere shortly."
"Learning to read?"
That got him a bit of a flat look, as Aldan bridled a little. "'Tis true I had no great schooling, young lord, but I learned my letters as a boy," he replied, clearly proud of this fact, and Peloren inclined his head, spreading his hands slightly by way of apology. And then, considering the other for the moment, and aware that he had not had such an extended conversation with another esquire (other than Elethil; Celdir and his lot did not count in his eyes) since last year that had not ended in insult, he suggested, feeling odd for the hesitancy in his voice and heart:
"When I was a boy, I was taught how to ride. Since then I have loved horses, even the caring for them, which many do not. If you had time, and wished it... it would be no trouble to me to show you how to manage things, so you could practice with your own mount, or give you some advice if I have any. I have some time this evening, even."
Aldan grunted and raised a brow. "Your squad won that jousting contest today, then?" Apparently, word spread quickly, Peloren thought.
"'Twas quintain, not jousting, but yes."
The older man considered him searchingly a few moments longer, and Peloren wondered what he sought in his face, or what he found, for finally, Aldan nodded. "If you've the time, I'd be grateful. But there's no hiding I'm the worst rider of the lot, though—it may take a lot of time."
"Well, you know what the Armsmaster is always saying," Peloren replied, and Aldan sighed.
"'All together, or fall together,'" he quoted, and shook his head. "Never thought it could get worse than phalanx training with the Third Company, but that man and his sergeants could change my mind!" Peloren chuckled, though having experienced both the infantry's regime and Ornendil's, he could not but agree with the sentiment.
"Come back after supper. 'Tis still light enough for such things."
"After supper, then."
"Do you need help with Ilmar? Now that I've taken your time talking, I mean," Peloren added swiftly. Aldan raised a brow.
"You really have nothing to do?"
"For a wonder, not today."
"Then if you're willing, I would not mind a bit of help. I can only be so late."
"Don't I know it!" Peloren replied heavily, but he hurried to draw a blanket over his own mount, and since he knew the stable boys had already seen to Lightfall's feed and water trough, fetched his own brush, then took it and the pail and sponge around to Ilmar's other side. "I'll see to his legs first; you brush."
"'Tis my pleasure," Peloren replied, as he bent to work. You have no idea how much!
Thus began his association with Aldan, for one meeting became two, and then three, and before long, they were struggling to find regular hours in which to meet and work on Aldan's horsemanship. As a rule, it was somewhat easier for Peloren, given his hours in the stables, particularly as cold weather took its toll on older horses and anyone who had some knowledge of the nursing of horses was much sought after.
Aldan would accompany him if he could, and though he had not any least notion of what to do with ailing horses, he followed instructions and could hold a lead rein with the best of them. Sometimes Elethil joined them, but usually, he had his own chores, whether punitive or otherwise, and so Peloren did not see his friend as often. But at least it meant he rarely spent any time with Celdir, either—the Lord of Linhir's son had never been one to enjoy stablework, particularly if it meant spending overmuch time with commoners, and his lot tended to follow suit. So despite missing Elethil, Peloren was grateful to Aldan for more than just his good company.
One day, perhaps a week before Mettarë and the winter holidays, as Peloren was coaxing one of the geldings to lift his foreleg, so he could see what might be the cause of a sudden stiff-legged limp, a shadow fell upon him, and he glanced up to see Master Théorwyn standing over him. "Sir," he said, quickly, rising to salute.
"Be easy," Théorwyn said, quickly waving off such formalities. "Have you found anything?" he asked, nodding towards the horse.
"I have only just begun looking at him. But I do not think he has picked up a stone, and the way he stands..." Peloren shook his head. "It seems as if it is the joint, not the hoof, that troubles him, sir."
"So I would guess as well. I've asked Master Kendrion and Evarin to take a look at him in a bit, so we may talk. Come," Théorwyn said, laying a hand upon his shoulder and drawing him along with him as he made for the stable doors.
The Master of Horses led him out to the fenced pastures, which had still some green upon them, Dol Amroth having mild winters by comparison with other regions. There Dol Amroth's herds grazed still, moving between hay pitched for them and the remaining green shoots. Heads came up instantly and ears swiveled their way as they came to lean upon the railing. "Beautiful, are they not?" Théorwyn said, smiling as he gazed upon them.
"Yes, sir," Peloren replied, drawing his cloak close about himself.
"What do you think?" the Horsemaster said, and nodded at a young horse, perhaps eighteen months old. Dappled grey, he stood with his ears straining forward, watching them intently. Peloren frowned, considering the animal for a time.
"Well, he is a pretty thing, certainly. Bright, too, from the look of him, but..."
"He is young, so perhaps he shall surprise me, but he seems a bit light in the chest for a war-horse. Not broad enough to bear up to what he should have to carry, sir," Peloren replied.
At that, Théorwyn grunted, though he continued to stare out at the horses. Meanwhile: What is this about? Peloren wondered, suppressing the urge to shift nervously. Of late, most attention from one of the masters had either been critical, or else if it were praise, it tended to arouse a definite resentment from some of his peers that he would have preferred to avoid altogether. If Master Théorwyn had found some fault, he would rather hear it quickly, and if not, well, he was growing tired of the amount of laundry he was having to do to deal with the damage to his clothing that came of being pushed into ditches or soiled hay by "accident."
Finally, though: "You and Aldan have spent much time together lately, I notice," Théorwyn said, and gave him a thoughtful look. "He has improved under your instruction."
"He simply knew little of horses, sir," Peloren replied, a little warily, and he shrugged.
"'Tis not knowledge alone gives a man horsemanship," Théorwyn countered. "You have spent much time learning to understand them—before you came to us as well as after. You've an eye for them, as you just showed me. Evarin tells me you are unbeatable as the master of the quintain among the esquires, and I have seen enough to agree. And you know a good deal about caring for horses as well as riding them. I know all of it will count as one of the two skills knights must have, but what other are you cultivating?"
"I can scribe well enough," Peloren answered, though in truth, his writing was merely passable compared to the penmanship and accuracy of someone like Torlas.
"What about teaching? You've done well with Aldan: I've spoken with him, and he swears by you," Théorwyn said, which was news to Peloren, though certainly, he knew Aldan was grateful for the help. "I know that in the past, you have been known to give the odd lecture to a page when it comes to caring for horses. And you have certainly proved yourself patient this past year—" whereupon Peloren ducked his head against the flush of his cheeks "—which an instructor always needs."
"I... had not thought of it, sir," Peloren answered honestly.
"Then think upon it now. Come Yuletide, I shall be losing Evarin to the Prince's household in Minas Tirith—he is betrothed to the daughter of one of the lords of that city, as you may know. It needs no white belt to instruct pages," Théorwyn said, "and I have had my eye on you for some time. I believe you could do this and it would certainly profit us all."
Peloren was silent for several moments, turning this unexpected offer over in his mind, trying to wrap his thoughts about it. To be one of Master Théorwyn's assistants... a teacher of horses and their riders... Most knights learned their two skills and employed them occasionally when the need arose, none of them being particularly gifted, but simply adequate to such tasks. War was their true calling, after all. But there were always a few who rose above that, and though Peloren had always known he was an excellent horseman, he had never considered that he might be one of those few.
Possibly, he cautioned himself. Horses you know, but there is still the matter of their riders, and there... Well, there were problems there, clearly—indeed, it was hard to believe he was having this conversation, given the weight of disapproval he had been laboring under the past few months. It felt somewhat as if he had taken a blow to the head, in fact—the sense of shock and the world reeling was much the same. And what would the others say? He could envision his squad's reaction all too easily.
Which was why, at length, he said, very carefully, "Master Théorwyn, I am very honored you would think of me to help you after Evarin leaves. But would this not cause... trouble... if the pages were left to my care? After last year, I should not have thought any would want me set over another, and the others..." He trailed off, and forced himself to raise his eyes to Théorwyn's face.
The Horsemaster's expression was mild, though, as he replied, "Despite your involvement in Valyon's plot against Andrahar, the Prince of Dol Amroth had faith that when you had served your sentence, you would return to us tempered against such abuses. Your words, and moreover your actions, tell me he was right to believe so, and in any case, I have never thought you had it in you to abuse a ten year-old boy. Your skill in horsemanship is undeniable, and the Swan Knights need those who can take on the charge to teach others to assume it." A pause, then: "Or do you have some specific concerns about your fellows, Peloren?"
"No, sir," Peloren said hastily. Théorwyn scrutinized him a long moment, and oddly enough, he seemed... almost disappointed, though Peloren could not for the life of him imagine why. But:
"Very well, then. We shall call that settled. We will speak again, soon, for I shall want you to keep more regular stable hours, and to join me on the fields with the pages and some of your less experienced peers. That means we will need to adjust your own practice schedule somewhat. I'll speak to the Armsmaster and Master Illian about it," Théorwyn told him, and gave a satisfied nod. "Off with you now, and see what Kendrion and Evarin have discovered about our lame horse."
"Yes, sir," Peloren said, bowing. Still reeling a bit from disbelief, he beat a hasty retreat, glancing back only once over his shoulder. Théorwyn still stood leaning against the fence, gazing out at the horses. Did you imagine he would vanish? his inner voice demanded, and Peloren sighed. Focus, Pel! It is a great chance you have been offered, even if the other esquires do not like it much. If Théorwyn approves, that can only help you. Do not give him reason to regret the offer, then, but get you to work and put the rest aside! So resolved, he quickened his pace, and for the first time in quite awhile, felt himself light as a feather.
Thus he did not see Théorwyn look after him and sigh. With a last glance at the herd, the Master of Horses betook himself back to the castle and through the halls until he came at last upon the Fledglings' Wing. Pausing by a heavy oak door at the start of the corridor, he raised a hand and rapped smartly upon it.
"Come!" came the somewhat muted reply, and Théorwyn obeyed.
Within, Ornendil sat back in his chair, and Illian, seated before the Armsmaster's desk, straightened as Théorwyn shut and locked the door behind him. "Well?" Ornendil asked without preamble as Théorwyn shrugged off his cloak and settled into the chair next to Illian's.
Stripping off his gloves, Théorwyn leaned his elbows on the armrests. He folded his hands and pressed them to his lips as he gazed pensively down at the desktop. Finally, he replied:
"We have a problem."
Ornendil listened, as Théorwyn described his meeting with Peloren, his colleague's expression between worry and frustration the while. When he had done, the Armsmaster sighed softly. Illian sat rubbing his brow, frowning, and for a time, silence reigned. At last, though, Ornendil said heavily:
"We knew it would be a difficult task to bring them back into the fold."
Théorwyn grimaced. "I just fear we may have contributed to that, rather than helped. I know we agreed among ourselves that this first term back should be no easy stroll in the country, that it would help the sergeants and others in the company to see them struggle and feel they had earned their chance. And that in truth they deserved a testing." The Master of Horses snorted, waving a hand. "Valar know it has helped me to see that they truly want it and are willing to work for it, to suffer for it a bit, even. But I asked Peloren to his face whether he had any concerns about his fellows after he suggested it himself, and he shut up tighter than a clam. We know a good number of the other esquires are at least avoiding him, and I wouldn't be surprised if a few are bullying him, if quietly, under the guise of correction."
"Bullying both of them," Illian interjected, and lowered his hand to look from Théorwyn to Ornendil. "Frankly, I am more worried about Elethil. Peloren at least has the horses, and making him an assistant and eventually a junior instructor will give him some protection. Elethil, though... he has always been the quieter of the two, and unfortunately, while he is a competent swordsman, he is not outstanding in any particular area. We cannot promote him to any special post. And I have noticed that since Peloren began spending time working with Aldan, Elethil has been scarce, and when he is about, he is often in the library, asleep over some tome or other."
"You were going to have a word with him, Illian," Ornendil said then. "You or one of the Prince's instructors. I take it that conversation was even less profitable?"
"Aye. He also will not admit to there being any trouble, though I pressed him harder than Théorwyn questioned Peloren. I also had the language tutor, Harthil, speak with him—you know he knows his business when it comes to asking questions!—but again, Elethil will say nothing against the others, though 'tis clear to both Harthil and me that he has no idea what he is reading half the time." The Swan Knights' Master of Records shook his head. "He is not in that library to study, he is there to escape—no one is permitted to disturb anyone there, not even with talk, and the reading tables are in full view of the clerks."
The Armsmaster grunted, an unhappy sound, and he silently cursed the reticence esquire training bred when it came to complaints. Granted, no one wanted a complainer, there was a difference between a tale-carrier who refused to bear up in the face of pressure, and a refusal to speak out about real problems. Unfortunately, it seemed both Peloren and Elethil were mistaking a lack of actual bruises or injury for the sort of minor, dormitory hazing that usually was tolerated for it generally died away naturally after a certain point, as the esquire companies pulled together.
Or because the perpetrators are kept too busy and tired to want to bother with it, Ornendil thought. That had been a part of the Masters' strategy this past six-months: keep everyone too busy for that sort of thing to go on, and otherwise remind their fledglings again and again that brotherhood was the foundation of their existence within the Swan Knights.
Unhappily, that strategy did not appear to have worked. The nature of Peloren's and Elethil's offense—an attack in itself against the very principle of fraternity Ornendil and the others continued to preach in an effort to curtail low-level retaliation—was such as to motivate not only the cool indifference he had expected would be maintained towards them, but also the more active harassment no one would yet admit to.
And it has bred in them, perhaps, a sense that they deserve nothing more, that they must bear up to it and 'take their punishment,' he thought. On the one hand, it was the sort of sentiment he encouraged knights to cultivate—a knight had to be able to own his deeds, whatever they might be. It was a point of honor, and an essential responsibility in men who held the power of life and death in battle or in any situation where weapons were drawn. On the other hand, in this instance, it was hampering their reintegration into the group as much as the pranks and harassment of their peers. 'Fraternal correction,' taken together with the masters' and sergeants' own policy of making this term a hard one for them, had conspired to make the only clear message 'suffer in silence.'
"Mayhap we should speak to the lads," Théorwyn said, after a moment. "Tell them that they ought to come to us if there is trouble."
At this, Illian snorted. "You're younger than I am, Théorwyn—you remember life in these halls. If you knew the masters were out to make your term hard, and you knew your peers were more or less concerned to put you in the place they've deemed you belong, would you say a word? Even if you were drawn aside and told to speak?"
"I've spoken with Kendrion," Ornendil added, "and also with Valandil. Kendrion wants the matter resolved, but he agrees with Illian and believes that at this point, a direct confrontation and lecture would be unlikely to do more than drive matters underground. We can speak with the sergeants about letting up a bit where Peloren and Elethil are concerned—we can do this, and I shall, and that should at least ease some of the pressure. But it shall not ease all of it. There are still the other esquires to deal with, and there again, I suspect a direct approach may fail."
"Would it?" Théorwyn countered, glancing aside at Illian. "Why should we not be direct? We have always held that we have the final word on what counts as 'correction.' If we speak with the sergeants and order them to put a halt to it, then we can come down on whomever we catch. For that matter, we know already who it is likely to be—Faldion and his friends make no secret of their dislike of Peloren and Elethil. Why not come down on them?"
"Because though we suspect, we have never caught any of them at it," Illian sighed. "And this sort of thing does not take place unless there is broad support for it among the esquires. It may be but a few who are actually harassing them, but for every one who is active, there are three more who approve and keep quiet, even under pressure."
"We could station the sergeants in the hall at night," Théorwyn suggested, though he did not sound particularly pleased with the idea.
"If I thought there might be a real danger to either of them, I would," Ornendil replied. "But after Andrahar, I very much doubt anyone would lay an offending finger on them with intent to do real harm. No, they'll keep it to the sorts of mischief that have never brought worse than a few days' punishment, if that."
"But we surely must do something!" Théorwyn pressed, and Ornendil sighed.
"Aye, we must. And I will have the sergeants patrol more often, particularly at night. And come the new term, there will be no tolerance of pranks or mischief. I do not wish to send someone up to face Valandil for harmless fun, but I will do it if it means Peloren and Elethil get a little sleep now and again."
"But even with those measures in place," Illian said quietly, "that will not solve the problem entirely. For Elethil and Peloren have never—not once—complained. They may be lying—they most certainly are lying about how they come to fall into ditches and filthy stalls or why they are late on any given morning or between lunch and classes—but that does not change the fact that we have never questioned their word. We cannot tell the others to leave them alone if, for all we are given to know, they have been having no trouble save what they incur from us. For that matter, what would you do, Ornendil, if you pressed them, and they continued to lie? Would you charge them with dishonorable insubordination, as the Code requires? And if you did not, how would the others take that failure?"
The Armsmaster grimaced at that, for it was, indeed, a valid point, and no doubt one that Elethil and Peloren had already considered. Illian was no doubt right that they would hold to their lies, for consistency's sake, if only because to admit otherwise was to admit to having lied, and given their precarious status, that might well be enough to see them sent home at this point.
"Peloren and Elethil are less than one year from being knighted," he said at length. "They are already past their majority. If they say all is well, then I will take their word for it. In the mean time, we will do what we can to curb abuses of fraternal correction. We cannot prevent everything, but we will hope that without the pressure from sergeants and officers, Peloren and Elethil may reconsider their course and come to speak with us when next something happens, as they ought to do. In the meantime, gentlemen," he said, changing topics, "we have another matter to consider that may well complicate matters. Another of our black swans is coming home."
There was a moment's silence, ere understanding dawned. "Andrahar is returning?" Illian asked.
"I just had word of it from the Prince and the Captain," Ornendil confirmed. Théorwyn uttered something foul in Rohirric under his breath, and the Master of Records rubbed at his temples in a pained fashion. Andrahar's training had been a headache for all of them, for all his formidable talent and endurance, and the incident two summers ago had sent them scrambling to decide what to do with him in the aftermath. They had readily agreed it would be best to send him north to Minas Tirith, to complete his training in relative peace among blooded knights whose experience would in any case be a better match for their brilliant if difficult student than his age-mates. How to bring him home, however, was a problem no one had yet solved, and if Andrahar's loyalty and competence could no longer be in any doubt, neither these things, nor his unique qualifications for the mission into Harad had been the sole motives for acceding to Thorongil's request to take the lad south.
However, there were some things to be said for his imminent return, and Ornendil gestured placatingly to his fellows. "His return may add to our troubles, it is true, but there are other matters that may play to our favor when it comes to bringing him into the ranks: firstly, Imrahil will be reinstated for the next term. His ship is due to arrive by Mettarë, and the Prince and the Princess believe he should be able to manage himself now that the Elves have cured him."
"That is good to hear," Illian said. "But how is this especially helpful to us?"
"It is not—yet. But consider: Imrahil has always been Andrahar's champion, and his guide in settling into Dol Amroth. I do not doubt the Heir's presence and patronage in that regard will continue to serve Andrahar well, for all that he now outranks Imrahil. Ordinarily, they would see little of each other, for with esquire duties, Imrahil will be kept busy, and Andrahar will have his own tasks in whatever company Valandil assigns him to. However, it occurs to me that we ought to foster a more regular contact between them. For Imrahil can help Andrahar settle, and perhaps even settle with the rest of the esquires."
At this, Illian and Théorwyn frankly stared at him as if he had gone mad. "Your pardon, Ornendil, but what makes you think he can accomplish such wonders if he has not been able to do so in the past three years?" Théorwyn demanded.
"Several things. Firstly," Ornendil began, "Andrahar's reputation did rise somewhat when the true tale of what happened in the Sea Star became known. Imrahil swore by him, and even apologized publicly to him—and Adrahil did not have to prompt it. For that matter, secondly, the Prince's thanks goes far among those of us sworn to serve him. You know that, and that a blooded knight is less likely to care what Andrahar's origins are after so clear a demonstration of faith from the Prince. So he ought to have an easier time settling into his company than he might have otherwise. Too, this recent trip to Harad, if Thorongil's report is favorable, will only lift him higher. He may finally have a chance to look a peer in the eye, and for someone of Andrahar's pride and position, that ought to mean much.
"Which leads me to say that, thirdly, with all of that to stand upon, he should be able to face the esquires. Particularly if he has Imrahil to steady him, he ought to be able to do it—and indeed, we need him to do it. They will be his peers one day, and if he is to stay on with us, then it behooves us to use him well, so that our fledglings learn to respect him early. We do not want divisions in our ranks forming about him—no more than we have already. And since there will always be more esquires entering the ranks, then we must see to it that he comes to terms with them early, as well."
"Am I to understand you wish to make him one of your assistants?" Illian asked, then.
"Aye, that is what I plan to do. He deserves the chance, and if it turns out he can teach, then we profit by him. And he must learn to command others some day—he may as well begin here, and while he is at it, face those who wronged him, and reach some accommodation with them."
"I do not know, Ornendil," the Master of Records said, frowning slightly. "I do not deny that what you have said has much of truth in it. But is it truly wise to force him to deal, now, with students for the first time, with settling into a new company, and with the offense Elethil and Peloren committed against him, all at once? You say Imrahil will help steady him, but Imrahil is no older than he is, and younger in many ways, however canny he is in his friendships."
"Théorwyn?" Ornendil shifted his gaze to the other, and raised his chin slightly, soliciting his opinion.
The Master of Horses frowned, then sighed, tugging gently at a stray strand of hair—brown, not black, courtesy of his mother's people, and from the look on his face, she was much on his mind in that moment. Finally: "He is not one to turn from a challenge, our Haradric black swan. But I agree with Illian," he said, with manifest reluctance. "Andrahar is the sort to solve things with a sword, and while that is well and good for what we've made him for, it does not serve so well in this sort of matter, where he has nearly always had Imrahil to speak for him. Now he will be set over Imrahil and needs must speak for himself, but what comes of that seems to be either a warning or an outright challenge from all I've ever seen. If it is reconciliation you want and an end to division, I fear you may be asking too much of him. Of all of them, in truth."
"Perhaps I am," the Armsmaster conceded. "But consider this: they wish to be knights. Andrahar is a knight. And if a man wishes to wear that belt, then he must be prepared to be out of his depth at times. For we do not choose what obligations come to us, gentlemen, we never have."
Ornendil paused a moment, eyeing first Illian and then Théorwyn, ere he continued. "Yes, it will be hard on them to be thrown together, when all of them are adrift. But we do not have a choice: we cannot be a company divided. Andrahar lies at the heart of our divisions, and I fear he always will so long as war with Harad hovers over us. If I have come to see that I may not blame him wholly for such strife as has racked us since he entered our ranks, neither may I let matters stand as they are. And if they are to change, then we must find a way to make him ours, and that cannot happen by carefully holding him apart from all those who may find his presence offensive, or by shielding him or Elethil or Peloren from the consequences of past divisions. It does no one good, especially not them.
"Let them face each other, therefore, and let us use Andrahar as well as we can—we owe it to him, but also to ourselves as a company, for so long as he is here among us, we shall always face this trial when the new esquires come up against him. Imrahil's presence will help matters, I think, and since it is clear to me that those two will be with each other for as long as it is given to them, let them learn now how they must help each other, for all our sakes."
"And what if," Illian asked quietly, voicing the concern that had lain quietly to one side throughout this argument, "in the course of this learning something serious should happen between Andrahar and Peloren and Elethil?"
"Then I hope for all their sakes that it will not happen with a weapon in reach of Andrahar," Ornendil replied.
"It would be student against teacher, however junior, if it did, Ornendil," Illian stressed.
"I know, my friend. And I know, too, something of the way of honor among Haradrim. If something of that sort were to happen, then it would be my head for putting Andrahar over them. You know very well that I opposed training him for the strife it would bring, and also because he had no notion of the difference between his ways and ours, and I feared I could not guarantee his behavior. But it was an order that was given to me, not a choice," the Armsmaster replied, with a wintry little smile. "My training may well be flawed by the doubts I had of him, but in any case, it is what I have given him, and now 'tis time to trust it, or else admit to the Prince that we were wrong to elevate him even as far as knight-probationer."
At this, Illian simply spread his hands, surrendering the argument. Théorwyn inclined his head slightly, as well, and Ornendil gave a sharp nod. "Then we are agreed," he concluded. "I will inform the Prince of our decision with regard to Andrahar, and the Captain as well. Théorwyn, send word to the sergeants and tell them I want a word with all of them later tonight. Illian, I want you to take the first week back to lecture specifically on fraternal correction and what that means. I need to consider what sort of apprenticeship I can manage for Andrahar. I think perhaps Master Harthil may have a place for him, even if I cannot convince the Captain."
And as they rose, he finished: "There is much in this that we cannot do for them, but let us make this work, gentlemen, as well as we can."
A/N: Thanks to Isabeau for providing information about various martial exercises you can do with horses, and general information on horse behavior. I also have benefited from the essays from an online site that address the idea of horsemanship in terms that make sense of it as a relationship. Foolishly, I did not immediately bookmark or copy-paste the URL into a file, and I cannot find them anymore.
Also, the bit where Peloren remembers the attack on Andrahar is more or less lifted straight out of chapter 2 of "Kin-strife."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.