1. Unripened Fruit
"A new friendship is like an unripened fruit - it may become either an orange or a lemon"?- Emma Stacey
Late. Late. Late.
Ingold ducked down Brewer’s Lane, grabbed the post of the stall on the corner and swung into the narrow alley shortcut to the fortress that bulged out from the walls of Pelargir. Why did his father have to choose this morning to give him an etiquette lesson? Though the king was in residence, it was not as if he were ever likely to meet him and his friends would not wait for him forever.
The alley ended at the fortress wall and Ingold slowed down as he jogged along it. It would not do to pass the guards at the gate out of breath. Since the king had arrived two days ago, they had all gotten to be sticklers for the rules.
The back wall of the fortress loomed over his head and he hurried along the opposite side of the wide swath of graveled road that separated it from the city.
“Psssst. Hey, you! Wait.”
Ingold looked around. Except for a couple of veiled women rounding the end of the wall ahead of him, the area was deserted. He shrugged and started to walk again.
Looking up, Ingold saw a grill set in the wall about ten feet off the ground and a lighter oval blob behind it.
“Me?” Ingold went to stand under the grill.
“I saw you run by yesterday morning, too. Where are you going?”
The voice sounded young. It was no secret. Ingold called up, “Out to Haldan’s farm. His dad got an Oliphaunt! And me and Borion and Niben and Canglos are helping take care of her and train her.”
“A real Oliphaunt? Can I come, too? Please?”
Ingold bounced impatiently. “I don’t have time to wait while you go around. I’m already late.”
“I can come now.”
The face disappeared into the gloom of the room behind it. A second later, one section of the grill moved inward with a groan of stressed metal, and a shower of bits of dried mortar rained down on Ingold’s head. A boy eeled his way out of the opening and balanced precariously on the tiny ledge while he dragged the grill back into position. Grabbing the still-fixed sides of the grill, he lowered himself down the wall until he hung by his fingertips from the ledge. He let go and half slid, half fell down onto the road, bending his knees to ease the jolt of landing. Turning around, he dusted himself off and shrugged at a small tear in his neat blue tunic as he smoothed the torn edges back towards each other. He had long, dark hair worn clubbed back with a tie of worn leather and bright grey eyes over a hopeful smile. He was much of a height with Ingold.
“Won’t they miss you pretty soon?” Ingold asked.
The boy gave an unconcerned shrug. “I’m supposed to be spending the day studying. The door’s locked, so they can’t get in to check.”
“They locked you in?” On this perfect summer day, Ingold thought this was the cruelest thing he had ever heard of. “I’ve got a holiday.”
The boy pulled a key out of his pouch and laughed. “You’re lucky. No. I locked the door to keep those pesky girls out. I’ll just walk in the front and reopen it later. I saw you yesterday, going out and coming back. I hoped you’d come by again and… and… I already finished the essay I said I was going to write.”
If this boy came from the fortress, he had to belong to someone with some rank. And if he’d been stuck with the seneschal’s giggly daughters running in and out, and from what Dírchen said about the prince, he understood the need to lock the door. Still, he didn’t want a stranger tagging along. Ingold shook his head.
“Please? I won’t be any trouble. And it’s an Oliphaunt! If it wasn’t an Oliphaunt, I probably wouldn’t follow you, but I’m outside now anyway and… I don’t have any friends here.”
Follow him! That’s all he needed and he was really late now. He’d be lucky if Borion and Canglos were still waiting at the tree. The boy had stopped pleading and looked scared and hopeful and young. With that expression on his face, he looked more like Niben! Well, Ingold could look him straight in the eye, so maybe not that young. It was not as if Ingold didn’t like him. It was just….
“How old are you?” Ingold demanded.
“Twelve. I was twelve in the spring.”
He’d be useful anyway. “I’m fifteen,” well, almost, “so you do what I say today, all right?”
“Sure. I’ll do whatever you say.” The boy’s face lit up.
They turned and walked together down the wall towards the road to the gate at the far end. The other boy had a northern sounding drawl.
“What’s your name?”
“Call me Dari.”
Were there two syllables on that ‘a’? What name… ? “Daeri?” Ingold suppressed a whistle of surprise. Families who used that name had been against the legitimate line since the kin-strife more than a thousand years ago.
“Sure.” The boy sounded it out. “Daeri? That’s me.”
Ingold was impressed that having that name didn’t seem to bother Daeri, or maybe it didn’t matter so much up in the City as it did this close to Umbar. Maybe Daeri was a hostage and his father was from Umbar or somewhere; but he was just a kid, and seemed nice. Ingold didn’t want to hold whatever his family had done against him. “I’ll bet you can guess what my name is,” Ingold said.
Daeri shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“It’s Ingold. Every third person in Pelargir is named Ingold. Haldan’s brother is Ingold, so we call him ‘Niben’. My father’s name is Ingold, too. Look, when we get to the gate, you let me do the talking.”
“All right. Isn’t the mayor’s name Ingold?”
Ingold nudged him with his elbow. “My father is the mayor. Who is your father?”
“Your father is an important man.” Daeri sounded impressed and Ingold preened just a little. They rounded the corner before Daeri could say more and the gate came into view. Ingold held out his hand to stop Daeri. “Just follow my lead.”
Daeri nodded. Ingold approached the gate and dodged around the line of waiting carts until he saw a guard he knew. He didn’t think Sulras would give him more than a moment’s difficulty. “Morning. We’re just going out to see the Oliphaunt again this morning.”
The guard pulled out a tablet and laboriously wrote Ingold’s name in the wax. “Who’s your friend? It’s your father’s orders to keep track of who goes in and out.”
“This is Daeri. He’s from up north and visiting.”
“I got no Daeri on my list. Where are you from, boy?”
“Minas Tirith,” Daeri said.
“See, Sulras. He wouldn’t be on your list yet. He just came in the north gate and this is the west gate.” Ingold peered around the guard. “And you know you let Borion and Canglos out already. Come on; just write his name down so we can get back in later. I vouch for him.”
“All right. All right.” Sulras wrote again on the wax. “Off with you. And be back before curfew tonight. Not like last week.”
Ingold tugged Daeri out of the gate and waved behind him as they ran away. “Thank you.”
A furlong outside the gate, a giant tree grew at the side of the road. Ingold saw his friends waiting for him under it. “Are you really from Minas Tirith?” he asked as they approached.
“Oh, wow. None of us have ever been there.”
Daeri grinned. “But you’ve got an Oliphaunt. Thanks for letting me come.”
Aragorn knew himself more than capable of cleaning out corrupt administrations, reforming greedy tax-collectors, implementing sound agricultural practices on ravaged farmland, and keeping his often fractious nobles in line, but it was best when he didn’t need to. The mayor of Pelargir ran his city well, the taxes and tariffs arrived promptly and in full, the people prospered and the king’s seneschal in the fortress kept the city safe and regulated the river traffic. The morning spent with the mayor and the seneschal going over the accounts and deciding what improvements should be implemented from royal revenues and which should be paid for by the city had been productive and without rancor. The afternoon’s session, where a seemingly endless procession of minor functionaries were introduced and confirmed in their offices was a formality to be endured.
The door to the chamber opened and the new forester from the royal preserve was ushered into the room bringing with him the noises of a scuffle in the anteroom.
“… me go! It’s not…”
“… we’re not crimin …”
The heavy door thumped shut, cutting off the cacophony of protests. The new forester took a hesitant two steps into the room and gave an uncertain bow. There was a thump on the door. The mayor looked very uncomfortable.
“Is that something you should deal with?” Aragorn asked.
“I’m sure it is a trivial matter, Sire, best dealt with later.” The mayor gestured to the forester to continue, but there was another thud on the door and it opened an inch letting in the sound of an outraged male voice before it thumped closed again.
Aragorn’s guard had come to alert and were moving stealthily towards the door. A red flush spread up the mayor’s cheeks.
“I think,” Aragorn said, “that we can afford a break to allow you to clear up this unexpected business.” He turned away from the room and gestured to the attendants to refill his glass that sat on the low table beside his chair.
The forester retreated to the far side of the room. The mayor hastened to the door and eased it open a crack. As Aragorn surreptitiously stretched his shoulders and sipped the crisp, chilled white wine, the mayor stuck his head out into the anteroom and conducted a whispered conference. Aragorn’s guards stood behind him ready to bar the way.
“I don’t care whose sons they are,” bellowed out from the anteroom.
Aragorn nearly choked and hastily swallowed as a qualm surfaced. He put down the glass and gestured to his guards. “Bring them all in.”
The mayor quickly resumed his seat as the guards escorted in a short, burly man dressed in neat but unfashionable clothing. At the sight of the king, he started and whipped off his hat. He stood before the seats awkwardly crushing the hat in his hands. Three rustic looking men followed him in, hands firmly on the arms of six disheveled boys. They were followed by some of the city watch in livery. The room began to feel crowded.
After some shuffling, the boys ended up grouped together in front of the mayor behind the burly man who had been shouting.
“Let us go!” One of the boys wrenched his arm out of the hold that must have loosened as they all stopped and gaped at the king.
“Yes. Yes,” the mayor said. “I know these boys. They are hardly desperados. Let them go. What’s the meaning of this, Gladech? Have they been up to some highjinks?” The mayor frowned as he turned to Aragorn. “Gladech is the magistrate of a village about a league west of the city.”
“High spirits is one thing, sir, but I’ll not abide disturbing the peace an’ malicious destruction of property in my village. These here are dangerous criminals and when we tried to arrest them they ran away from my men.” Gladech stood straight and seemed no longer the least bit intimidated.
“Come, Gladech. These are good boys, my son among them.”
Aragorn leaned forward. The boys were clustered together, showing scared and defiant eyes. The littlest one in front looked near tears. “Tell us what happened.”
Gladech gave him a grateful look. “It’s a market day today, sir. A regular market day, sir, as we pay for as is proper. Around about lunchtime, there came a commotion and these boys brought a dangerous great beast - one that I always said should never have been let stay around here - into town and with a lot of whooping and hollering, they proceeded to rip down Widow Nelros’ stall and destroy all her produce. When I finally rounded them up, they claimed privilege and I brought them here to get to the bottom of it.”
“It wasn’t like that!” The boy who had first broken out of hold burst out.
“Ingold!” the mayor said. “You’ve caused quite enough trouble for today. Be quiet.”
“No,” Aragorn interrupted. “Tell us your version now, Ingold.”
The boy took a step forward and gave a jerky, shallow bow. “We’ve been working with Daffodil all summer, sir. She’s not dangerous, really, si -- m’l –Your Grace.”
“What kind of an animal is Daffodil?” Aragorn inquired. In his experience great, ravening beasts were not usually named for flowers.
“She’s an Oliphaunt. She’s not even full grown yet. Haldan…” he gestured towards one of the taller boys who took a nervous step forward and gave a bob of his head that might have been meant for a bow. “Haldan’s father is trying to train her to pull loads, like we hear they do in Harad. And we’ve been helping him all summer.”
The mayor sounded aggrieved. “That beast was supposed to be kept on the estate grounds. What was it doing near the village?”
“It was Daeri’s idea.” The gaggle of boys surged and the one in a bedraggled blue tunic was thrust forward. He gulped, made a very credible bow towards the king and the mayor, and squared his shoulders.
“Your Majesty. Your Excellency. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Oliphaunts and talked to people who have worked with them. Haldan said when they got Daffodil from Harad, the trader said she’d been trained to carry people. I knew that an Oliphaunt can carry many men, but she is only half grown so I thought she could carry the six of us. And she liked it!” He looked around for confirmation and all the boys nodded. “She liked it lots better than pulling in a harness. We rode her all around the estate roads and she turned and stopped and started again, just like we told her to. We kept her out of the fields and everything, and didn’t damage any crops at all.”
“Then why were you in the village?” the mayor asked.
“We never meant for her to go to the village,” the boy named Ingold said. “But we rode her into the courtyard by the castle, just to show Haldan’s father how good she listened to us.”
“But he wasn’t there,” Haldan chimed in.
“Right,” Daeri continued. “And then she saw the village and the market. It’s right outside the courtyard archway, and the gate was open, and she just went out the gate and we couldn’t stop her. We were shouting out her commands and pulling on her ear, but she didn’t listen.”
“It was the melons,” Haldan said with an apologetic lift of his hands. “Daffodil likes melons better than anything.”
Daeri nodded. “She went right up to a stall with a whole table of melons and she started to eat them all. And everyone ran away screaming. Her tusks aren’t very long, but they crunched up the table and she was grabbing all the melons with her trunk and shoving them into her mouth as fast as she could. . We were just getting her to listen to us a little bit again when he,” Daeri pointed to Gladech, “came up with a gang of men with spears and they started poking at her. Then she got mad and started trumpeting and rearing up.”
“We didn’t have a proper saddle or anything,” the littlest of the boys burst out. “And we all fell off and she ran.”
“We were not trying to get away from the magistrate or his men,” Daeri said. “We were trying to catch Daffodil before she did any more damage.”
“And did the Oliphaunt do any more damage?” Aragorn asked Gladech.
Gladech harrumphed. “I don’t know, m’lord. That beast ran straight back up the street and into the castle. My men grabbed these miscreants before they could run away.”
“First things first.” Aragorn ran a father’s experienced eye over the boys, seeing dirt, bruises and scrapes with streaks and smears the brown of already dried blood. “Are any of you injured?”
The boys exchanged glances and all shook their heads.
“No, Your Majesty,” said Daeri, who the boys had apparently elected their spokesman.
“Was anyone in the village injured?” Aragorn asked Gladech.
“Half the women will be having the hysterics for weeks, m’lord.”
“No blood? No broken bones?”
Gladech looked crestfallen. “Well, no.” Though he hastily added, “Not that I saw, m’lord.”
Aragorn nodded. “And the Oliphaunt? How badly was it injured?”
Haldan stepped forward until he stood next to Daeri. He shot an accusing look at Gladech. “I don’t know. We were dragged away before I could check her. She was bleeding!”
“Not too badly, I think, Your Majesty,” Daeri said. “There was blood on her flanks, but she was running strongly towards her stable and was not lame or anything. She was not trained for war, and had never been really hurt before. As long as she does not become wild or distrustful from this … mistreatment,” he shot a venomous look at Gladech, “she should be all right.” Haldan was nodding agreement with Daeri’s assessment.
“Gladech, how much property was damaged?”
“Just the one stall, m’lord.”
Aragorn turned to the mayor and raised a brow, offering to let him take over the proceedings, but the mayor seemed willing to let Aragorn conduct the impromptu court.
“So,” Aragorn stated, “there were no personal injuries. Haldan’s animal caused property damage in the village. Gladech, in turn, caused injury to Haldan’s animal. And the boys created a disturbance of the peace in the village. Is that a fair statement of the case, Mayor Ingold? Magistrate Gladech?” After receiving agreement, he continued, “Refresh my memory. What are the normal fines assessed for those infractions?”
After a little negotiating, it was agreed that most of the damages cancelled each other out and the boys each owed a three-penny fine to the village, payable by the next local assize. The verdict proved to be popular and the assembly relaxed. The participants began to mill about the room. Aragorn started to hope that the regular business could be resumed soon, but Daeri stepped up in front of him, eyes blazing with indignation.
“It is not fair, Your Majesty” he announced in a loud voice.
The people in the room froze in position, heads swiveling in unison to stare at the bold boy. Aragorn bit the inside of his cheek to keep his face stern.
The mayor huffed. “Now just a minute, young man! It is a very fair verdict and much less harsh than you deserve.”
Daeri waved a hand in dismissal. “Not the fine. We don’t mind paying the fine. But the village gets the money because we disturbed the peace. What about Widow Nelros? How does she rebuild her stall? Does any of the fine go to her?”
Gladech stepped forward and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t you be bothering your betters with such nonsense.”
Daeri twisted away from the restraint. “We should do something.” He appealed to his companions. “Don’t you think we owe her some help? We could build her a new stall or weed her fields or something to make up for the trouble we caused. We didn’t mean to hurt her, but her stall is still broken. And she lost all the money she would have gotten for selling the melons. Right?” He turned to his companions. “We can make it right for her.”
The boys huddled in front of the king, heads together and whispering amongst themselves for a minute. They came to an agreement.
“Sure, we could do something,” Haldan spoke up. “Our estate carpenter could show us how to fix up her stall.”
“And she can show us what she wants us to do in her garden,” Ingold added.
Aragorn held back a smile. The mayor had been right. These were good boys. Their fathers could be very proud of them. “Is that agreeable to you, Mayor Ingold?”
The mayor threw up his hands and agreed that the sentence should include restitution in kind to Widow Nelros. The bailiff came over and whispered to the mayor. “What? There’s my Ingold, Nelfer’s sons Haldan and Niben – no wait, put down Haldan and Ingold. Warden Echador’s son Borion, Brégaer’s Canglos and…” He glared at Daeri. “You, boy. What did you say your name is? Daeri? I do not recognize you. Who are you and who is your father?”
“M…me, sir?” Daeri stammered, looking a little intimidated for the first time. “I’m just, just visiting here for awhile. I have the coin to pay the fine.” He fixed Aragorn with a wild and pleading look. “Must I say who my father is?”
“Of course you must say who your father is,” the mayor began.
Aragorn, unable to resist the unspoken plea, took pity on his son. “I have seen him at the fortress. He is a guest of the seneschal. If he does not fulfill his obligations, you will know where to find him.”
“I think that move would also put your king in danger, Dírchen.”
Aragorn looked over to the table where his son and heir sat playing chess with the suitable companion provided by the seneschal from amongst the young men of the city. No king could have a better son. Though not yet into his teen years, Eldarion looked far more poised than his nearly adult companion. His linen was white, unwrinkled and unstained, even after a hearty, sauce-laden dinner. The pleats on his brocade over-tunic lay in precise folds under his belt. Eldarion’s hair shone, clean and tangle free, falling in soft, dark waves over his shoulders. Thin braids secured with silver held the hair away from his face. The pastime was gentile and suitable for a prince at his evening’s leisure. The only thing to mar the picture was the effort Eldarion was putting into losing the game of chess.
From the back, it looked as if Dírchen was trying not to squirm in his chair as he sought for a move. Even the back collar of his linen shirt had wilted and his hair stood rumpled up where he had been running his hands through it.
“I can’t think of anywhere else to move, Your Highness.” He sounded a little desperate.
Eldarion pointed to a square on the board. “If you put your horsey-piece here, would that not trap my castle so it can no longer protect my king?” Eldarion turned limpid and innocent eyes on Dírchen.
Aragorn bit his cheek to keep from smiling. He seemed to be doing that a lot today. He closed the ledger he was examining and walked around the table to stand behind Eldarion. Dírchen wilted even further under Aragorn’s scrutiny and leaned over the board, intently studying the pieces. Eldarion tilted his head up towards his father and rolled his eyes.
Aragorn saw the pieces were scattered around the board in a mish-mash of abandoned strategies. Dírchen moved a pawn at random.
“Your move, Your Highness.”
Aragorn put his hand on Eldarion’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Finish the game, my son. It is time for bed.”
Eldarion looked over at the window where the summer sun still rode a hand’s breadth above the horizon, but he raised his shoulder under his father’s hand in a twitch of a shrug and slid his queen across the board. “Checkmate.”
Aragorn was not at all sure that the move was legal, but Dírchen accepted the defeat, sweeping his hand over the board to knock over his king and disarranging most of the pieces.
Dírchen stood and made Eldarion an extravagant bow, though his eyes looked strained. “Excellent game, Your Highness. I do look forward to our little contests.”
“Good night, Dírchen, until tomorrow evening. I must, unfortunately, still deprive myself of your company during the day. My tutor insists that I apply myself to my studies.” Eldarion stood and gave him a bow so calculated it would have been an insult had Aragorn thought Dírchen able to read it. Aragorn raised his eyebrow at his son and Eldarion added much more naturally. “Thank you for coming. It is good of you to give up so much of your time to entertain me.”
Dírchen bowed himself out with effusive thanks. When they were alone, Aragorn gave his son a shake. “Are you always so unkind?”
Eldarion heaved a sigh. “I hate it. He won’t even try to win. I’ve told him and told him that I want him to play his best, but whenever the game starts to be a challenge, he just gives up. He didn’t learn to play until he was older than I am, so he assumed I didn’t know how, and he keeps giving me little hints on how to move as if I were a baby. He won’t even let me lose when I’m trying.” Eldarion kicked the chair. “And then he goes home and tells Borion that I’m a stupid poofer.”
“Stupid poofer. Borion wondered today if I had to be with the prince sometimes and asked me if Eldarion was really as much of a stupid poofer as Dírchen said. Of course he tells his parents I’m perfect, so Borion has to put up with them saying he should be ‘more like Eldarion’ every few minutes.” He leaned against Aragorn and sighed again.
“And Borion does not want to be any kind of poofer, whatever that is?”
“Well, would you?” Eldarion asked in obvious outrage.
Aragorn laughed. “I suppose not.”
Eldarion studied Aragorn through his lashes and looked hopeful. “I’m no poofer. Can you talk to Dírchen about how he acts around me?”
Looking at his son’s face, Aragorn thought back to his days in Rivendell. If he had found it hard sometimes to be an orphan with an unknown father, surely his son had as many difficulties.
“I think princes who are not poofers find ways out of these kinds of difficulties for themselves,” Aragorn told him, making his voice gentle.
Eldarion kicked the chair again. Aragorn waited, saying nothing. The boy finally flopped into the chair and admitted, “I was angry with Dírchen tonight. I will try again to make him see I’m not a poofer.” Eldarion fidgeted with a chess piece for a moment. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble. Are you going to allow me to go and work in the village tomorrow?”
“Allow you? I think you have an obligation to go, but, Eldarion…” Aragorn paused while Eldarion whooped with glee and danced around the room. He shook his head. “You are going to have to tell them.”
Eldarion bounced to a stop in front of him. “Why? I like being just ‘Dari’ instead of ‘Prince Eldarion’ and we aren’t going to be here more than another few days. Maybe they won’t find out.” A flicker of distress ran over his features. “You aren’t going to send a whole troop of guards with me or anything are you?”
He read the answer in Aragorn’s eyes.
“Oh, no, father! Please? They like me as just me. Nothing bad will happen. I’ll be very careful. No one knows I’m the prince.”
Aragorn felt himself weakening. At Dari’s age, he and Halbarad had been killing wolves - well, his mind insisted on honesty - a wolf in the wilds around Rivendell. Not that Master Elrond had approved of that little jaunt, either. Still, he remembered the freedom he had felt that summer when he and Hal had first snuck out of the valley alone. There were too many Dírchens’ in Dari’s life.
“All right. No guards.” At least not overt ones, Aragorn assured himself. Dari’s whole body radiated joy and he hugged Aragorn. Aragorn looked down into eyes shining with happiness before the boy bounced away again. “But, Dari, the longer you wait, the harder it will be. If your new friends find out from someone else that you… misled them as to who you are, they may still like you, but will they trust you?”
“Why does that matter?” Eldarion asked as he came to stop, head cocked to one side in question.
“A hundred years from now, you will be king and may need the support of the lords of Pelargir, and they will remember only that they cannot trust you.”
He waited while the boy absorbed that truth.
“Is it hard to be king?”
How to answer that? “Sometimes.” He drew his son close. Save along some distant borders, Gondor was at peace. His people had justice and freedom. “It is worth the effort to do it well, even when it is hard. I was very proud of you today. Shall we play a game of chess? I will give you a pawn and promise not to let you win.”
Eldarion squirmed out of his arms and sat down on the opposite side of the table. “Hah! I think I can beat you this time.”
“Clear up now.”
Dari bent down, picked up the cut-off-end scrap of wood from the ground and tossed it into the back of the wagon to be taken away. He joined Ingold and Borion who were waiting their turns to clean up the next scraps.
This was not proving to be as much fun as Dari had hoped. At dawn, they had ridden out to the village on the cart carrying the load of wood donated by the king with the carpenter from the fortress. The carpenter and his apprentice from Haldan’s estate were already in the village clearing away the debris when they got there. And a few minutes later the village carpenter and his son joined them. The boys had finished taking away the broken wood while the carpenters drew up plans for the new stall. The old structure had been little more than an awning and a table. The new one would have storage, benches and shutters as well.
Dari had been pleased when the carpenters were very good-natured about letting all the boys try sawing a board and pounding in a nail or two, but he, Ingold, and Borion had proven to be slow and clumsy at the unfamiliar tasks. Gradually, they had been relegated to being scrap carriers, while Niben, Haldan and Canglos, who already knew how to wield a hammer and saw, had been taken under the wings of the carpenters and kept busy.
Dari heard a burst of laughter from where Widow Neldros sat, nearly enthroned, on a chair overlooking the construction. It wasn’t a market day, but word had spread that the king himself had taken an interest in the widow’s plight, and the gossip held that he might stop by to see the progress. This was reinforced by the presence of a troop of the King’s Guards, magnificent in their jeweled tunics and astride well-bred horses. Leaving only two behind, they had dispersed into the countryside with the explanation that they were looking for likely recruits. Dari knew his father’s schedule and thought his attendance unlikely. The guards were there to watch him, but at least the villagers didn’t know that. The gate into Haldan’s father’s courtyard stayed closed, but the wide street was nearly as crowded as it had been yesterday and the food and ale sellers had been busy all morning.
The sun stood half way to noon, and the stall was coming together more quickly than he had thought it would. The next time Dari took a scrap away, he asked the carpenter, “Do you think you’ll be finished today?”
The man pursed his lips and gave the other groups working on different parts of the simple structure a quick assessment. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll all be home early for supper, young sir.”
When Dari got back to Ingold and Borion, he said, “I don’t think they need us here. Do you think we could offer to work on the farm now?”
Borion yawned. “Are you bored, too?”
“Even weeding has got to be better than all this standing around doing nothing.”
Dari slipped through the crowd around Widow Neldros until he stood near her. He made a respectful bow. The widow, who, Dari was shocked to notice, was neither quite as old nor as decrepit as he had been picturing, pulled her hand from a grizzled man kneeling in front of her.
“Get away with you,” she said to the kneeling man. “This nice boy wants to talk to me now, so I don’t want to hear any more from you about getting your beans into my new stall nor your old legs into my bed.”
Dari felt his face turn red, but bowed again. “Excuse me, ma’am. My friends and I are trying to make things right for you as quickly as possible. Would you like some of us to go out and work at your farm today?”
She regarded him with shrewd brown eyes. “Is that so you can get out of working there tomorrow?”
“Oh, no, ma’am, “Dari assured her, looking over to where Borion and Ingold were standing. “We’ll be happy to come and finish up tomorrow if we don’t get it all done today.”
Widow Neldros followed his gaze over to his friends where they stood fidgeting off to the side of the work area. She smiled at Dari. “Lathel,” she said to a woman cradling a fussy and bawling baby nearby. She came over to them at the widow’s imperious gesture. “This here is my son’s wife, Lathel. She needs to take the baby home anyway – teething, you know – and get my son his dinner. You go with her and do what she says.”
As they walked down the dusty track to the Neldros farm, Dari wondered if now would be a good time to tell his friends that he was really Prince Eldarion. He had not been able to screw up the courage to blurt it out in the street with all the people around. He hadn’t even been able to say it in front of the cart driver on the way to the village. And now there was this woman with a baby walking with them. It just did not seem like the right time.
When they reached the farm, Lathel gave them flasks of water and floppy straw hats to keep off the mid-day sun. Taking them into the neat kitchen garden field behind the house, she set them each to working down one of the long rows of melons. The baby had fallen asleep on the walk home. Lathel tucked him into a swing at the edge of the garden and worked with them down the rows, pointing out weeds to be pulled and how to recognize which buds should be pinched off. Several smaller children joined them in what was obviously to them a familiar task and it still didn’t seem to be the right time to announce who he was.
Dari tossed the pinched off bud onto the bit of sacking with the rest of the weeds and dragged it another few feet down the row. Rocking back on his heels, he mopped the trails of sweat from his face and grabbed the neckline of his tunic, peeling the sweat-soaked fabric off his chest. He flapped it trying to generate a little breeze. The sun beat down merciless heat onto his head and the air was damp and still. He uncorked his flask and took a sip of the warm, stale water and wondered if it would be more refreshing poured over his head. The littler children had all wandered back to the farmhouse as the sun rose higher, but he, Ingold and Borion still labored. If any of the melons in these rows had been ripe, Dari would have eaten twelve by now, but they were a later planting and the tiny green globes were just starting to swell.
“Sirs! Young sirs!” The eldest of Lathel’s brood stood at the end of the row waving his hands to get their attention. His mouth gaped in a toothless grin that showed the stubs of new teeth pushing out. “Mam says that when you’re a done wi’ the rows, you’re to come to the yard an’ get some food.” Giggling, he scampered away.
Borion popped his head up from the second row over. He was a little ahead of Ingold and well ahead of Dari! “Race you to the end! Bet you can’t finish before the storm hits.”
Storm? Dari scanned the sky. Over the Anduin glinting silver in the distance, a dark cloud swirled as a squall blew up from the sea, sheets of grey rain already obscuring the south horizon, though the sun still beat down on him from directly overhead.
Dari gulped two swigs of the water in his bottle and poured the few drops left down his front. “You’re on!” He bent back to his task with renewed will.
The first splats of rain, driven by a wet wind only slightly cooler than the steamy air, hit Dari’s face as he and friends came into the farmyard. They dashed for the door of the house. It banged open under Dari’s hand, pushed by a sudden gust of wind. He froze in the doorway as a flare of lightening lit the interior, gleaming off white jewels and silver thread on the tabards of two guardsmen sitting at the table inside with another man. They looked over with interested expressions and the beginnings of grins on their faces.
“Idiot! Move!” Ingold shoved Dari inside, Borion close beside him, and pulled the door shut against the wind and lash of rain.
Dari ducked his head and tilted his straw hat towards the table trying to conceal his face. Groping blindly in the sudden dimness, he stumbled against the wall, waiting for his eyes to adjust. His mind repeated Please, don’t see me. Please, don’t say anything. in the direction of the guardsman. He had recognized Bergil - Bergil, who had taken him up on his horse often and often when Dari was too little to ride alone – and young Damrod, who had taught him how to whittle a seagull out of a scrap of wood as their ship lay becalmed off the coast of Tolfalas just last week. Why, oh why, hadn’t he said something sooner to Ingold and Borion?
As a table laden with platters of cut melon, loaves of bread, butter, jars of jam and honey, and bowls of curds came into focus in front of him, Dari heard Lathel introducing the guardsmen and her husband – another Ingold - to them.
“And that’s Daeri, staring at the food.” She came up behind him and put a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Don’t just look at it, young sir, eat!”
“Thank you. It looks delicious.”
He took the smooth wooden bowl she proffered to him and held it while she ladled in a portion of curds. A small hand edged out from under the table and groped its way to a platter with the heel of a loaf of bread. Grabbing the bread, it just missed being whacked with the spoon as Lathel brought it down on the tabletop.
“Ingold! That was the last of the manchet! There was half a loaf here a minute ago.”
“Sorry, mam,” drifted out in chorus from under the tabletop, followed by the unrepentant, crumb-covered faces of the toothless boy who had come out to the fields earlier and a littler girl. “I thought they was done,” the boy, Ingold, said.
Lathel shook her head and pulled a platter of dark bread forward. “I hope you can make do with the brown?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am.” Borion jostled Dari’s elbow as he came up behind Dari and reached over to snag a piece.
Dari ended up with a bowl of food on his lap, wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder between his friends on a bench to the side of the unlit fireplace. The guardsmen ignored them in favor of discussing the state of the crops and politics with the adults and Dari felt very grateful for the reprieve.
By the time Dari nibbled the last of his melon off the rind and dropped it into his empty bowl, the rumbles of thunder had moved away to the north. Lathel propped the door open and Dari could look out under the brim of his hat to see the rain still pattering down steadily in the yard, though the sky was getting lighter by the minute. Ingold’s voice muttered plans for training Daffodil and hunting and sailing that would take more than the rest of the summer to accomplish into his left ear. Borion kept up a hushed litany of, “Look at the sword now.” “They have three knives.” “I’ll bet they’ve been to the North Kingdom.” and “Their saddles are in the corner.” in his right ear. Dari kept his head down and confined his replies to affirmative grunts that encouraged them equally.
The legs of Captain Bergil’s chair shifted. “So, boys. We’re looking around for likely recruits. Do you know of anyone who might like to join the Guard or the army?”
Borion shot up off the bench. “Me, sir. Me!”
Damrod gave a deep chuckle and Dari peered up under the brim of his hat in time to see him looking Borion over carefully. “You? Guards have to be man-high. I think you’ve got a bit of growing yet to do.”
Borion started to sag, but Bergil held up a hand. “It takes four things to make a Guardsman. No reason you can’t perfect three of them while you’re waiting to grow into the fourth. Do you know what they are?”
“You’ve got to be able to read and write and figure in both the lords’ tongue and the common tongue.” Bergil held up one finger on his right hand. “Can you do that?”
“Of course. We can all do that.” Ingold said in very credible Sindarin, though to Dari’s ear he still clipped his vowels. His tone implied that even asking was an insult.
Bergil held up a second finger. “You have to be a good fighter.”
Damrod feinted a few jabs at Borion. Borion blocked the second and slipped in around the third and tapped Damrod’s shoulder with his fist.
“Ho! I see you’re a good man with your fists,” Damrod said. “Are you as good with a sword?”
“Better!” Borion said. “My father’s a Warden of the city and I practice with the city guard all the time. But I don’t want to be in the city guard. I want to go to Minas Tirith and be in the King’s Guard. You want to travel, too, Ingold, and we practice together anyway.” Borion swiveled around to look back at Ingold on the bench. “Why don’t we all join?”
Ingold shook his head without looking particularly sad about it. “I want to be a merchant not a soldier. After my father’s term as mayor is up next year, he’s taking me around both kingdoms to meet our suppliers and partners. I’m going to get my adventures before you are because you have to wait to grow man-high.”
“Daeri?” Borion turned and held up a pleading hand. “How about the two of us?”
Daeri squirmed on the bench and wished it would swallow him. Ingold was looking at him. Borion was looking at him. Damrod was looking at him. Bergil looked as if he were trying not to laugh. “Well… I…”
Thuds of running hoof beats sounded from the yard. Bergil held up a hand, motioning for silence. He and Damrod stood and moved towards the door, hands on the hilts of their swords, expressions intent and deadly. Lathel clutched at her husband. The little girl started to wail and ran towards her parents. The horse stopped and a second later the rider ran towards the door.
“Lathel! Ingold!” A man burst through the open doorway and pulled up short at the drawn swords of the guardsmen.
“Don’t! Don’t. He’s my brother.” Lathel screamed.
The tableau held for a second, then Bergil slid his sword back into its sheath, and clapped Lathel’s brother on the arm. “Sorry. Startled us.”
The man swallowed, nodded, and made a wide circle around the guardsmen to Lathel.
“You must come quickly. Ingold,” he addressed Lathel’s husband, “your mother has finally accepted Ingold Tinsmith’s proposal and she wants you to come, right now, and witness the settlements!”
“She’d move to the village?” Lathel asked.
“That’s what she said. And deed you the farm, Ingold.”
A delighted grin spread over Lathel’s stunned face. “Mistress in my own house,” she breathed out near inaudibly.
Her husband picked her up and spun her around, narrowly missing the low rafters. “Mistress in your own house,” he agreed. “And sooner than we looked for.”
He slid her feet back to the floor and captured her lips in a long kiss. Bergil and Damrod grinned and picked up their saddles. Ingold elbowed Dari and rolled his eyes. Borion made a moue of distaste.
“Can you stay and watch the children?” Lathel asked. Dari scrunched down into the bench to be as inconspicuous as he could make himself and met the elbows of his friends doing the same.
“Of course,” Lathel’s brother answered, and Dari breathed a sigh of relief. They had been forgotten. Bergil thanked them for their hospitality and the guardsmen left. Lathel fluttered around, wiping children’s faces and issuing a stream of orders to her brother. Her husband had disappeared into a curtained alcove to change into better clothes.
Dari plucked up his courage and stood. “Excuse me, ma’am. Will you be needing us to weed again tomorrow?”
She gave them a distracted look. “Oh. The weeding.” She stopped and smiled and bobbed them a little curtsey. “No, you boys have done a wonderful job. Your debt is paid.” Her expression turned dreamy again. “Mistress in my own house.”
Dari turned to her brother. “Should we go back to the village to help out there?”
He shook his head. “Naw, young sirs. They are cleaned up and gone by now. But you are all invited to the wedding next market day!”
His friends rose and stood with him. “Thank you,” Ingold said. “We will be sure to come.”
Dari knew he would not still be in Pelargir next week, but he said nothing.
Lathel’s husband came out buttoning his jacket. He seemed startled to see the boys still there. “Can you find your own way back to the city?”
“Of course we can,” Borion assured him. “We’re closer to the road to the south gate here, so we won’t even go back through the village. We’ll go by the road and see if we can hitch a ride.”
By the time they reached the road that led to the city, Dari was more tired, hotter and thirstier than he’d ever been in his life. How could he be so parched when the air felt damp enough to drink? A great tree grew at the junction of the rutted cart track between the fields that they had been following and the road. He flopped down in the shade, the grass cool and damp under his back.
“I thought you said we could hitch a ride,” Ingold said as an empty wagon lumbered by them heading out from the city. The driver gave them a wave as he passed.
Borion peered up and down the road and shrugged. “There should be someone still heading towards the city. I’m so thirsty, I’d settle for a well here.”
“There’d be a public well,” Ingold replied hotly, “if some people weren’t so stingy with the water rights!”
“This isn’t even the main road, it just runs into it near the docks. It’s not my fault! Or the City Guards’!”
“I never said it was!”
“It’s a farm road.”
“I know that! I’m just thirsty and there ought to be a well at crossroads!”
Dari heard the clop of trotting horses heading towards the city. “Someone’s coming from the right way.”
He stood up as a troop of King’s Guards came into sight around the curve, Bergil leading the file. He gave Dari a wink and casual salute as he passed him. Dari felt his face flushing even hotter than it had in the heat.
Borion, his argument with Ingold forgotten, danced up and down the side of the road cheering and gesticulating wildly. “Can you spare some water?”
Damrod, riding at the end of the file, unhooked a leather bottle from his saddle and tossed it to Borion. Borion caught it and clutched it to his chest, shouting his thanks as the riders continued down the road. He uncorked it and took a few swallows before handing it over to Ingold who drank and handed it to Dari. Dari drank a couple of deep gulps of the warm water and held the flask in his hands. It was embossed with the Tree of Gondor, with the crown and stars of the royal house that the Guard was also entitled to display.
“I’ll keep it safe.” Borion took it from him and slung the strap over his shoulder. “And make sure it gets back to Damrod tonight.”
They started down the road towards the city still half a league distant, the towers showing grey and hazy. Dari lagged a step or two behind Borion and Ingold, his head bowed as he listened to Borion’s plans for returning the flask and ingratiating himself to the Guard. He seemed to have forgotten that Bergil had never finished enumerating what it took be a part of them. Dari knew. The final trait needed was honor and courage, and now he knew he had neither. There was no reason not to tell his friends who he really was, but he just couldn’t. Everything would change. They’d treat him differently. He shouldn’t care, but he did. It was terrible to be twelve and know you are a coward.
“What’s wrong?” Ingold asked.
He must have stopped. Ingold and Borion stood facing him, concern in their expressions. He swallowed and looked away, shame a leaden lump in his guts.
“It’s not Daeri,” he blurted out. “Curse your stupid southern accents. I’m Dari, not Daeri. Dari: short for Eldarion, which is a stupid name anyway. Why’d they have to name me ‘son of the elf’? Mother spends half her time telling people she was never really eldar anyway but only peredhil – half elven - and it doesn’t matter because …” He was babbling and he knew he was babbling. He looked up in time to catch a wink and a grimace of communication between his friends. “What?” he demanded.
Ingold shrugged. “It’s all right. We know you’re Eldarion.”
Dari rocked back on his heels, mouth dropping open. “You do? How? When?”
Borion stepped forward and laid a comforting hand on his arm. “Well, not right away. I mean, not yesterday, but we all knew today.”
Ingold nodded, “We thought you might have been a hostage or someone, but after you stood up to the King… last night we asked around and, well, you came from the castle and showed up at the same time as the King, and, and - there isn’t anyone else you can be.”
“Does it matter?” Dari held his breath.
“For what?” Borion asked. “Are you going to stay you, or go all la-di-dah on us like you do with Dírchen ?”
Indignation snapped Dari upright. “I do not! He’s the one who acts like a, a poofer!” He saw his friends exchange uneasy glances. “He does!”
“Dírchen ’s not a bad brother. You know, for a brother,” Borion said.
“He’s old. I always get old companions. I wish they had sent one of you instead. Why did they choose him anyway?” he ended on a mournful sigh.
“He worked hard to get chosen. He told father he did it for the honor,” Borion said.
Ingold shook his head. “He thought he’d be able to show off in front of the Seneschal’s daughters, but you drag him off so he doesn’t even see them.”
Dari gave Ingold a skeptical twist of his brows. “Those girls are…” he groped for a not too derogatory word, “fluffy and not… I mean, you can’t talk to them. They just giggle and they don’t know anything. Even playing chess with Dírchen is better than spending time with them.”
“Morwen has really big breasts,” Ingold said without any expression. “She lets Dírchen touch them sometimes when they are alone.”
Dari felt his jaw drop in the seconds of silence that followed that revelation, then Borion dug his elbow into Dari’s ribs and guffawed. Ingold broke into a grin and started to chuckle. Dari grinned back and felt a whoop of laughter bubbling up. Borion howled with glee and clutched at him for support. Every time it felt to Dari as if the paroxysms were dying down, one of them would catch another’s eye and it would set them off again. Dari gulped air and wrapped his arms around his aching ribs.
At last, the laughter died down to grins and in unspoken assent, they turned and continued down the road. Borion shared the flask of water around again. They passed the occasional cart coming out from the city, but none heading towards it. Walking on the verge to give a cart room to pass, Borion picked up a stick an arm-span in length and swished it like a sword.
“I know,” he exclaimed, “let’s do Thorongil against the Corsairs. I get to be the Corsair captain!”
Ingold dived for another stick and brandished it nobly, “I’m Thorongil!”
Dari straightened up from picking up his stick. “How come you get to be Thorongil?” he said indignantly. His father was really Thorongil, so that should be his part.
Ingold paused and Dari saw him swallow. “I’m always Thorongil.”
Borion leaned on his stick and shook his head, and said in the voice of someone being scrupulously fair, “No. Dírchen used to be Thorongil until he got too big to play with us.”
They looked at Dari with wariness and speculation in their expressions. Dari’s heart sank. Couldn’t he be a prince and a friend? He stared back at Borion and Ingold… Ingold…. He grinned and leapt to Ingold’s side, declaring with a theatrical flourish of his stick-sword, “I’m Ingold!”
Ingold dropped the point of his stick and curled his lip. “You’re going to be me so you get to be Thorongil?”
Dari rolled his eyes. “Thorongil left from Pelargir, right?”
“Yes,” Ingold agreed warily.
“And the ships he took were in winter dock, so all the captains and crews he could call on were local men, right?”
“Yes,” Ingold agreed again no less warily.
“Pelargir men. So there had to be a mighty Ingold to fight at Thorongil’s side and cover his back, right?”
“Probably more than one,” Borion said. “Probably ten.”
“Right!” Ingold brightened.
Dari and Ingold clashed sticks and turned to face Borion. “Prepare to die, Corsair scum,” Ingold shouted.
“Wait a minute,” Borion backed up, his stick up in a high guard position. “That’s two against one!”
“Gondor!” Dari bellowed and charged.
Borion turned and fled, Dari and Ingold in hot pursuit. Borion dodged along the verge of the road that curved ahead to the right to pass along the wall of the city.
“Cut him off,” Ingold screamed and pointed Dari towards the bend of the road.
Dari dashed across the low scrub to cut the corner and block Borion’s retreat. Ahead of him, a tangled copse of bushes marked the edge of a field that cut as close to the road as allowed. He angled slightly more to the left and put on a burst of speed. Hearing shouts and the clash of sticks behind him, he slewed his head around as he ran, and stepped out into air. He felt himself fall. He dropped his stick and tried to tuck and roll as he’d been taught, but the ground rushed up to meet him. His hands and knees squished into cool mud at the bottom of the shallow ditch and mud splashed up onto this face. He knelt there, breathing hard and giggling until Ingold and Borion’s heads popped into view over the edge.
“Dari? Are you all right?”
Dari heaved himself out of the mud and leaned back against the side of the ditch. His body stuck out above the edge of the shallow cut to nearly his waist. He shook his hands and gobs of mud dripped off them while he grinned over at the shocked faces of his friends.
“Come on in. The mud’s cool and feels great!”
Dari scraped the mud off as best he could, using the few places of standing water still in the ditch from the rain to rinse off his hands and face. He dried his hands on his backside and stood still for an inspection.
“You’re still a muddy mess,” Ingold said. He pointed across the fields to where Anduin rolled in the distance. “Maybe we should cut across and just drop you in the river. Unless you want to get tossed in at the docks?”
Neither alternative appealed to Dari. The water around the crowded docks was hardly cleaner than he was and his stomach was starting to growl.
“Isn’t there a well or a fountain or somewhere I could sluice off nearer than that?”
Borion’s stomach growled back at Dari’s and they rubbed them and grinned. Ingold snapped his fingers.
“Sure! Look,” he pointed ahead. “If we don’t go around the fortress to the docks side where the main gate is, maybe we can talk our way in through the city guard’s postern gate. You,” he pointed to Borion, “live there anyway, and I’m the mayor’s son. I know we aren’t supposed to, but seeing how muddy Dari is - I don’t suppose you want to just command it?” Dari shook his head in horror. “Well, even if they don’t know he’s Eldarion, I’ll bet they’ll let us in.”
“Worth a try. Then you can sluice off by the stables,” Borion said.
“And we can get some of that great seed cake and lemonade your housekeeper makes,” Ingold agreed. “You know, just to tide us over until dinner.”
They talked their way in with minimal fuss. Ingold attributed it to his persuasive argument, but Dari thought it more likely to be the presence of Bergil sitting silently in the gatehouse. After several buckets of water had been liberally distributed on all of them, Borion led the way to a side door of the house tucked inside the fortress walls. It opened before they got there, and a formidable woman in a clean apron and cap blocked the way.
“Out with you! You’ll not be bringing your muddy, drippy selves into my clean kitchen.”
“But we’re hungry.” Borion managed to look pathetic and starving. “And thirsty. We worked all day building sheds and weeding gardens, and we had to walk all the way home – leagues and leagues - and Dari fell in the ditch. He’s not usually this muddy. Please, may we have something to eat?”
“Hhmph! Well,” she relented, “go around to the courtyard and I’ll bring a out a tray. But be quiet. Your mother has the tailor in for Dírchen and they are in the parlor.”
Shade from the tall walls bisected the courtyard and Borion led the group up the neat graveled paths to a cool patch under the espaliered fruit trees against the wall where wooden benches flanked a small stone table. Borion and Ingold sat on the benches, but Dari flung himself onto the ground and used Borion’s bench as a backrest. The scythed grass was cool, and he twisted a few drops of muddy water out of the hem of his tunic onto the ground. The top was already mostly dry, but streaks of reddish mud marred the whole garment. His arm itched and flakes of mud came off as he scratched at it. Dari shoved his sleeves up as far as they would go and rubbed his hands up and down his arms, smearing the last damp patches into a thinner film.
“You’ve got mud in your hair,” Ingold said solemnly. “Aren’t princes usually clean?”
Dari shrugged. “I’ve been dirtier.” Ingold had managed to acquire a streak of mud on his cheek, but Dari couldn’t muster the energy to comment on it.
Borion laid his head onto the tabletop and his eyes closed. Butterflies danced over the flowerbeds on the sunny side of the courtyard and bees hummed in the branches behind Dari. The tall windows of the house stood open and a murmur of indistinct voices reached them.
“Hhmph!” A rattle of dishes and a slam of a tray on the table jerked Dari awake. “If I’d known you’d be napping like babes, I’d not have hurried to feed you.”
Dari leapt up and bobbed his head in a sketch of a bow. The tray contained a pewter pitcher beaded with moisture, three tin cups and a wooden platter heaped with slices of cake and mounds of raisin-studded biscuits. His mouth watered and his stomach grumbled. “Thank you for hurrying. It looks delicious,” he called after the housekeeper as she swept back to the kitchen.
Borion rubbed his eyes and reached for the pitcher.
Minutes later, the plate contained only crumbs and Dari drained the last of the lemonade into his cup. The seed cakes had been as excellent as promised. Ingold stretched and belched. Borion grinned and punched him in the arm.
“Hey!” Ingold straightened his back.
Borion pushed his thumb onto the crumbs on the plate and licked them off. “Do Haldan and Niben and Canglos know we don’t have to go weed tomorrow?”
Dari drank the last of the lemonade. “I don’t know. Do you suppose Lathel told them when she got to the village?”
“I think they’d already left, but it doesn’t matter,” Ingold said. “We’re going to meet them in the village in the morning anyway. We can tell them then and go work with Daffodil instead. You going to jump out the window again, Dari, or meet us at the gate?”
Dari stared down into the cup and his distorted reflection stared back up at him from the uneven metal bottom. If he thought he could get away with it again, he would jump out the window. But he’d promised and honor was everything. “I can’t come.” He took comfort in their dismayed faces. “Unless….” He slapped his hand down on the tabletop in frustration. “I don’t think… my father… no one thinks any one of you, or any one here in Pelargir… no one really thinks anything bad would happen, but I’d, I’d have to bring my guards. They followed us anyway, today. And I promised. I promised I wouldn’t go out without them again after today.”
“Guards?” Borion perked up. “You mean Damrod or Bergil would be there, too?”
Dari nodded. “I could ask for them.”
“Well, yes!” Borion stood up and slashed an imaginary sword at the harmless trees. “That would be great! Do you think they’d give me some fighting tips? You can go muck about with Daffodil if I can get some sword lessons from the Guard!”
Ingold rolled his eyes at Borion’s enthusiasm and Dari grinned back at him.
“They’d stay out of our way,” Dari said.
“No! I don’t want them out of our way,” Borion said.
Ingold shook his head. “One track mind,” he said to Dari. “Good,” he said to Borion. “Damrod can keep you out of our way while we rig up the riding harness for Daffodil. Haldan said it would be ready by tomorrow so we can try it out.”
“I’ll be at the gate, then,” Dari said, relief coursing through him.
Borion, slashing fiercely at a horde of invisible foes, fought his way down the path towards the open windows of the house. Halfway there, he stopped and cocked his head, motioning back at them for silence. Dari listened but heard nothing but the indistinct voices from the open windows. Borion ran back along the path towards them.
“Come on.” Borion hunched into a crouch and scuttled across the courtyard Ingold and Dari on his heels.
They crept behind the low hedge under the window and huddled together, backs against the wall.
“There! Now it’s short enough,” a woman’s voice said. “Look at you! You are just as handsome as the prince when he came down off the ship. My son! Confidant of princes. I said to myself then, ‘If only my sons could be more like Eldahrion.’”
Dari winced. She had drawn out the “a” in his name in an exaggerated court accent. Ingold stifled a chuckle. Borion rolled to his knees and cautiously raised his eyes above the sill. Ingold followed his example. Dari angled his head, trying to squeeze in a view next to Ingold, but had to step back and peer between them into the room.
Dírchen stood awkwardly in the middle of the room where the heavy furniture had been pushed back along the walls. The tailor was still on his knees fussing with the line of the hem on the pleated surcote of elaborate brocade. One sleeve was still draped over a chair ready to be pinned in place. Dírchen looked wilted from the heat and his shirt was streaked with sweat where it showed under the heavy fabric.
“Mother, I’ve told you. I’m not…” Dírchen began.
“You will be!” Dírchen’s mother stood up and patted the fabric on the one brocade sleeve. “It was because you didn’t have the proper clothes. Of course, dear Eldahrion didn’t take you seriously. But now…”
“He doesn’t even like me!” Dírchen burst out.
“Nonsense! He has to like you. It is important that he likes you.” She looked annoyed. “He’s a Prince. He’s used to being deferred to. I know you and your father have this silly notion but you will both have to trust wiser heads on this. Your mother knows best. If you always defer to his opinions and don’t make it obvious that you are letting him win at the games, when it comes time to ask for a position, he will remember you fondly and speak for you to the king.”
Dari, reaching his hands down to the ground to steady himself, found himself thinking better of Dírchen. He pictured the conversation Dírchen’s mother expected.
Father, please give Dírchen an important position.
Why should I do that, Dari?
He always loses to me at chess, father. He must be qualified.
Grownups were very stupid sometimes.
“Mother, no. I can’t do that anymore. I really think…” Dírchen began.
His mother sank back down in her chair and fanned herself with the handkerchief clutched in her fingers. “Oh! Such an ungrateful son! I am sure Eldahrion never contradicts his mother, the queen, in such a fashion. You tell me he has exquisite manners and yet you will not follow his example. Oh, if only my sons were more like Eldahrion!”
She stretched out his name far too much. The ground under his hands was still damp from the earlier rain. Dari squished up handfuls and leaned in between his friend’s faces.
“I know what you need to be like Prince Elda-a-a-a-rion,” he said in a low, quiet voice.
His friends eyes swiveled towards him. “What?” Ingold whispered.
“More mud!” Dari reached around them from the outside and swiped his muddy hands down his friends’ faces and over their tunics. He scrambled backwards out of the hedge and turned to flee.
Ingold caught up to him just as he reached the table. Dari danced out of his grasping hand and Borion lunged up from the other side, knocking the tray off the table with a ringing clang as the metal pitcher and cups hit the ground. Dari leapt backwards, caught his heel on the low edge of the walkway and windmilled his arms for balance. Ingold dove for his knees. They rolled together on the grass and Borion threw himself on top of them. Dari ended up on the bottom, howling with laughter, with his hands up to protect his head from the random and feeble blows Ingold was managing through his guffaws. Dari surged up, and the wriggling mass of limbs flipped and he was on top fending off Borion’s arm.
“Stop at once! What is the meaning of this?” Borion’s mother’s voice rang out hard and clear.
Dari stopped and extracted himself from the pile. They boys ranged themselves in front of the table with Dari between Borion and Ingold. Facing them on the path, Borion and Dírchen’s mother stood flanked by the housekeeper with a disapproving scowl on her face. Dirchen, still in his half-fitted surcote, stood a step or two behind.
“Nothing, mother. It’s nothing,” Borion said, with residual giggles in his voice.
“Nothing? You’re filthy! Fighting and damaging the good pewter is not nothing!” She gestured to the pitcher on its too-flat side on the stones. “And you,” she poked a finger at Dari, “must be that new boy who led my son into such trouble. None of my sons were ever brought before a magistrate before you showed up. You are nothing but a hooligan.”
Dari knew the moment Dírchen recognized him. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Dírchen stood frozen with a terrified expression in his eyes.
“Get out!” Dírchen’s mother was still in full tirade.
Dari saw a strand of his hair with a clump of mud in the middle hanging down near his eyes. His tunic was ripped and stained and his hands still clotted with dirt where he had scraped it off the ground. He was not her image of the perfect prince. It would be easier to just leave. Dari felt certain that one or more of the guards were lingering outside the house to escort him back to the fortress. He straightened. He was Eldarion Telcontar, of the line of Elendil, and he could count on one hand the generations that separated him from Beren. He was a prince and did not need fancy clothes to prove it.
“Leave at once, you filthy ragamuffin! You are not welcome in this home ever again. I’ll see you are banned from the city if you ever show your….”
Dari stepped forward, chin up. He cut across the tongue-lashing. “Dirchen, you should introduce us.”
Dírchen lurched out of his stupor and stepped up to his mother. Words had failed her at Dari’s effrontery and she was only spluttering in outrage.
“Your Highness.” Dírchen made an obsequious bow. “May I present my mother, Úlwen of Thindor, wife to Warden Echador of the City of Pelargir.” He faltered but grimaced and rallied. “Mother, this is Prince Eldarion.”
Úlwen gave one outraged snort as if this were all a joke. Dírchen held out a supplicating hand to her and shook his head, his expression still terrified. Dari stood erect, trying to capture his father’s court expression on his own face. Úlwen looked uncertain for a moment, then gasped and sank into a deep curtsey.
“Your Highness, if I offended, I can only…”
Dari stepped forward and gestured for her to rise. “I am pleased to have this opportunity to thank you for your generosity in allowing me to monopolize the time of both your sons; Borion during the day and Dírchen in the evenings. Their companionship has made my stay here in Pelargir very enjoyable. I will always remember Pelargir, and them, very fondly.”
There! That was pretentious enough and ought to please her. And true. He was not likely to forget any of this visit. It was the most fun he had ever had on a progress.
Úlwen curtsied again and fluttered her hands towards the house. “Your Highness, if you would deign to come inside, we could offer you more fitting hospitality…”
Dari rubbed some of the mud off his hands onto his tunic and shook his head. “My mother, the queen, would be displeased if I brought this much mud inside anyone’s home.”
Úlwen dropped to her knees, paled and started to look as if she would cry. Dari blinked. He’d only wanted to spare her furniture. Did she think he was angry? It wasn’t her fault he had snuck out and ended up all muddy in her courtyard. He looked at Dírchen’s pleading face and Úlwen’s distress. He had seen prisoners look more confident. Did he really inspire that much fear? That was new and different, and might come in handy someday, but he didn’t like it now. He could fix this.
He held out his hand and waited until Úlwen, with a dawning hope, took it. He helped her to her feet. “Perhaps,” he gave her his most winning smile. “Would you allow Dírchen to come before his time today? If he escorted me back to the fortress now, I am sure he could stay for dinner with the seneschal’s family before he takes up his duties with me this evening.”
Looking flustered, Úlwen turned to Dirchen. Dari saw Dírchen’s expression light up at the thought of a dinner with the seneschal’s daughter. Dírchen bowed again. “I’d be honored to be your escort, Your Highness. Just give me a moment to change.” He bowed again. “Your Highness” he said and turned back towards the house.
Borion elbowed Dari in the ribs and Dari heard him snicker. “Dírchen,” Dari called out.
Dírchen turned back and bowed again, “Your Highness?”
Dari smiled and gestured around him, encompassing the garden, “In private, my friends call me Dari.”
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.