I am not a great teller of tales, though I have known many. Imrahil of Dol Amroth, for instance, could make the account of which suit of clothes he had chosen to wear that morning into an epic that would both amuse and entertain. Elrohir of Imladris had the grace with words that only the people who invented speech possessed. And Faramir of Gondor was not entirely without his gifts when it came to story-telling.
There had been winter evenings in Henneth-Annûn, when the cold and the dark, and the mist off the waterfall seeped into everyone's bones, so that we just huddled there in misery. At such times, the bolder ones among us, usually Mablung or Angrim, would ask the Captain for a story. And Faramir would go into his precious store of books and tell us a tale of our valorous forbears and their fight against the Enemy. We would sit about his feet, for all the world like a cluster of very large and scruffy children, and listen and be heartened, if not physically warmed.
Upon one particularly cold night, he told a story that he said was in my honor, since my forebearers had come from the North; the tale of Arvedui the last king of Arnor, and his stay among the ice-folk of Forochel. That, we all declared when it was done, had served to make us feel quite warm and fortunate by comparison. Faramir had laughed, for it sometimes seemed that the more difficult things became, the warmer and more encouraging his manner became with them.
"I suspect, that were we ever able to talk to some of our Northern kindred, that they would think us dreadfully soft, calling this cold," he had said, smiling. "They would be most disappointed in our lack of fortitude!"
We had laughed at the time, but in the days following the King's wedding, I found that there was actually a grain of truth to Faramir's statement. I spent much time with my grandfather, and his comrades of the Grey Company, and if they never impugned the valor of their Southern brethren, I did get the distinct impression that they felt that we must be softer, simply because of the softer, warmer, riper land in which we dwelt. Though they did give us credit for living successfully upon the very borders of Mordor for centuries, they also felt that we had fallen further away from our Numenorean heritage than they had, and that our blood had been sadly diluted. And they worried about the effect Gondor's bounty would have upon their Chieftain, and what would become of Arnor, were he to come in time to cling exclusively to the richness of the southern realm, and forget the harsher northern one.
Litharel did a bit of story-telling himself, regaling me with tales of the glory of the northern woods and mountains. Of the river-valleys and wetlands. Of the stalwart, eligible young men who apparently were just waiting for my arrival to have their dearest heart's wish fulfilled. Of my loving kindred, eager to welcome me into their circle. Of the majestic Eagles, and how my coming north would make them happy beyond compare. He laid it on thick, did my grandfather, to the point that I felt very uncomfortable. Someone was inevitably going to be disappointed no matter if I stayed to go to Dol Amroth, or went North. Finally, I had had enough.
"I will remind you," I told him one afternoon, as we were riding back from a jaunt across the Pelennor, during which he had pressed the matter again, "that if you'd only decided you wanted to seek me out openly when you arrived, instead of all that questioning and spying and deciding that you did, the King would not have made me swear to Prince Imrahil. If he had known that you wished me to go North, I doubt he would have bound me in fealty to Dol Amroth. You're the reason I'm in this situation."
Grandfather looked shamefaced at that. "I suppose I am, lass, and I apologize for that. But," and he looked up hopefully, "it is naught that cannot be mended."
My temper rose. "Nay, easily mended enough indeed! All I need do is lay aside my sworn word so that I can do as you wish. A small matter, for who takes the oath of a woman seriously?" He realized at that point that he was treading upon thin ground, and the rest of our ride passed in uneasy silence.
Upon our return, I found myself in a most unrestful state of mind. Elrohir was not in my room, and I wanted to discuss the matter very badly with somebody. So I washed the horse from me, and dressed in the dark red tunic Elrohir had selected for me, and set out for the Dol Amroth townhouse.
Cruel, you say, to discuss whether I would stay or go with the man who had declared his love to me and whom the decision concerned most closely? Perhaps so. But I did trust Prince Imrahil's judgement before almost anyone else's, and he was much more approachable than the king. As for Faramir…we were finally upon comfortable terms with each other again, and I did not wish to hazard that in a discussion about my prospects. I already knew that he wanted me to marry his uncle. Or someone else, as he had freely admitted.
Prince Imrahil was, amazingly enough, actually at home rather than in one of the endless councils the King seemed to be including him in of late, though he had a pile of documents set before him upon the table we had lunched at in his magnificent garden. He looked up at the interruption, smiled and rose to his feet.
"Hethlin! Do what do I owe this pleasure?"
He was wearing another of those hobbit-style jerkins, a sensible choice given the heat of the day. This one was in a deep green, and it took me aback a bit, for the Ithilien color scheme played up his resemblance to his nephew, which was more marked at some times than at others.
I bowed. "It's Grandfather, sir. He is most insistent that I return to the North with him and meet my kin. I thought to seek your advice upon the matter."
The Prince went expressionless, in that way that he had when he was carefully considering what he wished to say.
"Come, sit down, Hethlin," he said after a moment, and returned to his own seat at the table. When I had taken the chair opposite him, he looked up, his expression grave.
"I have already told you that if you decided to go North, I would release you from your oath to me. You know how I feel about oaths taken under duress."
"And I would be willing to speak to Aragorn about this so that he would release you as well. But beyond that, I fear I must recuse myself from advising you."
"Recuse? What does that mean?"
"When a judge is asked to pass judgement in a matter, and he knows one of the parties involved, either because of blood relation or business dealings or something of that sort, then he recuses himself from the judgment. He asks someone else to do it in his stead, and withdraws. I must recuse myself because I am not capable of being impartial."
I nodded. "I understand that, sir."
"Unfortunately," and here the Prince smiled ruefully, "I have no substitute to offer you. Have you perhaps thought to discuss the situation with Aragorn? He has lived in both the North and South and would be uniquely qualified to advise you."
"That might be a good idea. I had not done it because I did not want to trouble him at a time when he has so much to do and grow accustomed to."
Imrahil sat back in his chair. "You are his kinswoman, Hethlin. I think he would be pleased that you trusted him enough to confide in him."
The door into the library opened, and Captain Andrahar stepped through, with what looked like a letter in his hand.
"Imri-" he started in a pleased tone of voice, then saw me. The pleasant expression upon his face vanished, to be replaced by stern formality. "My lord prince. The Stud master's report upon the foalings so far this year. I thought you would like to see it."
The Prince extended a hand. "Thank you. I do indeed! Caerith was a busy lad last year, and I'd like to see what came of his labors." Captain Andrahar moved to his side and handed him the report. Imrahil took it, then eyed him speculatively. The Armsmaster's eyebrow rose.
"What is it, my lord?"
"Hethlin came to me today with a problem I cannot counsel her about. Perhaps you might be able to shed some light upon the matter." The Armsmaster looked at me with a decidedly unenthusiastic air.
"I doubt she would care for what I have to say, my lord prince." I was struck once more by how surprisingly deep his voice was. And dismayed at the prospect of discussing my problem with this man who had already made it plain that he thought little of me.
The Prince seemed oblivious to our mutual lack of enthusiasm. I wondered if that was intentional or not. "Nonsense!" he declared. "You are a wise man, and a good teacher. I am sure that Hethlin would find your thoughts upon the matter profitable."
"Any counsel you might offer would be gratefully received, sir," I agreed politely. Master Andrahar gave me a disbelieving glower, and grudgingly capitulated.
"I shan't speak to her with you hovering by, Imrahil. Find another place to be for a while." To my astonishment, my liege accepted this dismissal with good humor, gathered up his paperwork and meekly took himself off into the house. The Armsmaster watched him go, his face expressionless, and then turned back to me. As always, he gave an impression of barely leashed energy and power, the sort of thing one expected in a younger man, but did not look to find in a warrior of his advanced years.
"Come," he said abruptly, and stalked off through the garden. I followed him to find him mounting a staircase obscured by the lush vegetation that led up onto the wall between the fifth and sixth circles. Once upon the battlements, he stalked over to the merlons, and looked out for a moment.
"So, what exactly is the nature of your problem?" he asked, turning his attention back to me.
It seemed, I reflected, to be my fate this month to have all of my serious discussions upon the walls of Minas Tirith. Hopefully this one would go better than the last had.
"My grandfather would like me to accompany him North when he returns with the Grey Company."
"But the King wishes you to go to Dol Amroth."
"Aye." I looked down at the toes of my boots, then up again. "The Prince says that he would release me from my oath of fealty if I wished to go, and both he and Grandfather say that they would petition the King on my behalf."
Master Andrahar shrugged. "Well then, it would seem that you have matters arranged very nicely. Let them get you out of your obligations, and you are free to return to your stitchery, or playing with your feathered friends, or tupping your elf-lord, or whatever it is you want to do instead of being a Swan Knight. I hardly see why you need anyone's counsel about this."
Flushing at the scorn in his voice, I protested, "I did not say that I had decided to do so, I merely said I was thinking about it!"
He snorted. "The very fact that you are considering it indicates to me that you are not worthy of the opportunity that has been presented to you."
"I did not ask to become a Swan Knight! I wished to remain a Ranger in Ithilien! I was promised a captaincy, and the King denied it!"
"He denied it to offer you a chance to become something more than a Ranger, or even a Ranger Captain. Any Swan Knight from the ranks is a captain of men in other company!" Stretching his arms out along the stone and rolling his shoulders to un-knot them, he frowned broodingly. "Wearing the white belt, woman or no, you would be able to take command of any troop of men in this realm, and your fitness to do so would never be questioned. That may very well be what truly Aragorn intended for you, this business about guarding his wife aside. The King wished you to become more than what you are, that you might serve him better. A very great honor which is apparently wasted upon you."
Startled, I admitted, "I never thought about it that way. It seemed more like a punishment to me." The Armsmaster straightened up, and moved away from the wall, taking a step closer to me.
"And had you done something that warranted punishment?"
"I thought that he wanted me out of the way because of Lord Faramir."
"Lord Faramir was already betrothed at the time. I doubt that Aragorn was concerned about that. But in truth, you do share much in common with the White Lady besides your lust for the Steward. Both of you crave your King's respect and approval, yet when he asks you to do a task which does not suit you, you both immediately abandon it in favor of something you like better. Women!" He snorted once more, which immediately brought Anborn to my mind, for though the two men did not physically resemble each other in the least, both of them snorted most expressively. "The South is wiser. The Haradrim are not so foolish as to ask those who are moon-ruled to concern themselves with weighty matters."
Offended twice over, it took me a moment to collect my wits. "It is not the same as with Éowyn," I protested at last. "She did not ask her King for leave to go."
Dark eyes bored into mine. "If you do ask him, and he grants you leave, 'tis true that you will not be foresworn. But you will still be thwarting his wish and will, and you know it." Another shrug. "In truth, I cannot blame you. You would not be welcome among us. The King trod on many toes when he forced my lord to take you in fealty--the choice of who is worthy to be admitted to the Swan Knights has always fallen to the Prince and his Armsmaster. And even though Imrahil is enamored of you, I do not believe he would have made that offer to you himself."
"Nay, I do not believe he would have either. He knew I wanted to stay in Ithilien," I said thoughtfully; then, curious, asked him, "Would you have made me an esquire?" His answer came firm and fast.
"No. You are certainly swift, but not strong enough. I deem you borderline eligible at best. And I am getting too old to relish the thought of all the extra work I would have to put in you to bring you up to standard. So I warn you now, that if you do come to Dol Amroth, I will make your life a misery. You will curse me upon rising in the morning, with your last breath before sleep at night--and countless times in between. For to get that white belt from me, you will have to be better than most of the other esquires."
"Why better? Why not just as good?" I asked indignantly.
"Because just as good will not be good enough if you are to command the respect of strange soldiers, if you wish them to follow your orders instead of putting you on your back and having you. You have to know that you are capable of defeating any of them; if you do, then they will sense that and respect you."
I had to admit that made a great deal of sense. "Thank you, Master Andrahar," I said after a moment's thought. "You've been very helpful." His eyebrow arched ironically.
"Have I now? I am overjoyed to hear it." And he strode off down the stairs without another word.
Leaving me with much to think about. I had never before considered that the officers of the Swan Knights might be as unhappy about the situation as I was, that they too might have felt that they had been coerced. Much of what the captain had said tended to reinforce my idea that going North would be the better decision to make, save for one thing:
"Wearing the white belt, woman or no, you would be able to take command of any troop of men in this realm, and your fitness to do so would never be questioned. That may very well be what truly Aragorn intended for you, this business about guarding his wife aside. The King wished you to become more than what you are, that you might serve him better. A very great honor which is apparently wasted upon you."
That had never occurred to me, wrapped up as I had been in self-pity and resentment at losing the captaincy in Ithilien. Once again, the challenge tantalized-could I actually become a Swan Knight, one of the premier mounted fighters in the kingdom?
Mulling the Armsmaster's words over, I descended the stairs once more and tentatively stuck my head into the library door. The Prince had situated himself in there and resumed his paperwork. He looked up at the sound of the door opening.
"Hethlin. Was Andrahar able to help you?"
"He gave me some new things to think about, my lord." Imrahil smiled and bowed his head back over his papers.
"That is a specialty of his."
I swallowed hard. "My lord, is it true that the Swan Knights are not happy to have me?"
The Prince raised his head once more. "Did Andrahar tell you that?"
"He said that the King had stepped on many toes when he made you take me in fealty, that it was his place and yours to choose who would become a Swan Knight."
Imrahil folded his hands over his documents. "That is true, and it may be that Aragorn did not remember it. But then again, this is not the first time he has been in Gondor. He spent some time here in my youth, and some little time among us in Dol Amroth. I suspect he did in fact remember, and knew that he was presuming upon me, but also that I would do as he bid."
"But how can I be trained if no one wants me there, or thinks that I can do it?"
Exasperation colored Imrahil's sigh. "You are determined to drag me into this, are you not? Very well then." I could hear the brisk impatience that evidenced when he was annoyed at the way I was behaving in his voice. "Hethlin, the commanding officers of the Swan Knights are professional soldiers, and they do as they are commanded by their commander, who is me. If I tell them to train you, and train you fairly, then they will. As for the rank and file, they probably will be unhappy, and you will have to deal with that yourself. Winning the white belt is not supposed to be easy." He gestured to his own. "Even I had to prove myself."
That was certainly a surprise. "I thought the Prince always was a Swan Knight!"
"Oh no. My father never got his belt, and there have been other Princes for one reason or another who did not have one. And I can tell you that I did not have an easy time of it and it took me longer than some to get it."
This was more new information, indeed. Imrahil cocked his head slightly and began to rub his signet ring.
"Hethlin, I would like you to consider something. Do you realize how slim the chance was that you even got to be a Ranger in the first place? In Gondor, women are not fighters, though I understand that things are somewhat different in the North among the Rangers, and that the Rohirrim, who were also originally from the North, have their shield-maidens. I am also told that the Easterlings have something like shield-maidens as well. But this is Gondor. What do you think would have happened had you been hale and not an orphan when Faramir fished you out of the river?"
"He would have sent me straight on to Minas Tirith, or perhaps back to Anorien."
"Exactly. Your illness, and unfortunate circumstances, led the Ithilien Rangers to become your family before they were your sword-brothers. Now it is possible that, had your family not been killed and you desired to be a Ranger, you might have gone, good as your archery and woods craft is, and feigned being a boy and succeeded in being taken into the company, at least for a while. But I suspect that, had you been discovered, you would have been cast out at once to return to your kin. It was only a rather unique series of events that allowed you the opportunity to seek renown upon the battlefield." He pushed himself up out of his chair, and began to pace about the room.
"Now consider something else. How well do you think you would have done, had Aragorn given you a captaincy of the Rangers and sent you off to command strangers rather than men who already knew you?"
I bridled a bit at that. "I'll have you know, my lord, that I commanded squads for Lord Húrin and they did not know me, and they followed me well enough."
"Because Húrin vouched for you. And you were not leading them into battle, but merely policing the City. Rounding up drunks is rather different from pitched battle, don't you think?"
"Are you saying that the King was right to deny me the captaincy?"
Sea-grey eyes met mine directly. "Yes, I am. Faramir promoting you in war-time, to command archers who already knew you in a siege that was ultimately doomed was one thing. He was truly short of commanders who had remained in the City. But you have had next to no command experience, and I suspect that whether he admits it or not, he was motivated somewhat by guilt when he tried to get North Ithilien for you after the war."
"Because he knew I was in love with him and he'd met Éowyn? So he was giving me something I wanted?"
I hardly knew what to think. How could Imrahil say such things of me, if he claimed to love me? It was difficult to speak of a sudden. "You said in Rohan…you said then that you knew I would command men some day."
The Prince was implacable. "And I meant what I said, Hethlin. Some day. Not immediately. You have not done a turn even as a lieutenant yet, there was no call to jump you up to captain."
Since that was the very same objection I had once voiced to Faramir, what came out of my mouth next was total stupidity.
"Then why did you ask me to marry you, if you think so little of me?"
And he had no patience for it. "I asked you to marry me because I love you, and I wanted you to be my wife!" For the first time, I saw Imrahil truly angry, and at me. It was frightening. "It has nothing to do with my assessment of your skills as a commander! What was it you told Éowyn-that just because you were her friend, you did not necessarily agree with everything she did? Then why, just because I love you, do I have to think that you do everything perfectly?"
He was absolutely right, I realized, and I was a fool. It was hard to meet his furious eyes, but I did so.
"I am sorry, my lord. You are right, and I thank you for your honesty. I shall try not to be so foolish in the future."
Imrahil took a deep breath and made a visible effort to master himself. "Very well then. I would appreciate that. Part of the problem is that you appear to be suffering under some misconceptions. What exactly is it that you think Swan Knights learn, Hethlin?"
I blinked. "Well, I thought that they learned how to fight really well."
"And have you heard that they also need to speak two languages and learn two courtly skills, as well as mathematics?"
"No. I'd been worried more about how I didn't know enough about the way they fought, and that I'd be backward. Though I remember the King talking about courtly polish, and you said that I have to take dancing lessons, as well as lessons about being a proper lady. Those have been worrying me too." A corner of his mouth turned up slightly at that, and I was heartened to see it.
"Yes, I remember you being apprehensive about that prospect! Well, besides all of that, the other thing they learn how to do is command. How to keep their men healthy and heartened enough to fight, how to march and get them there in condition to do battle, and what to do in battle once they get there. Strategy and tactics, how to attack and how to retreat, how to stand a siege and how to break one. The things that you don't have and really need to learn."
"'A Swan Knight from the ranks is a captain of men in other company,'" I said softly, finally understanding what it meant, and Imrahil nodded.
"Exactly. I can pull any man from the ranks, and set him over a company and know it to be well led."
"Mablung didn't have to know all that to be a captain. The languages and such."
"No, he did not. That is a Dol Amroth custom, and we do it so that we always have someone who can treat with an enemy in their own tongue. Mablung picked up what he needs to know to be a Captain of Rangers from long experience. He's been a Ranger longer than you've been alive and is a very shrewd man. But when you are done with the training, Hethlin, if you decide to take that route, you will know more than Mablung about some things. Do you not understand? You will have been a skirmish fighter with the Rangers, and a heavy fighter with the Swan Knights. You will know it all, your breadth of experience will be extraordinary, and no one will be able to deny your ability to command. Which is what I think the King intended."
"Captain Andrahar said something like that too."
"Andra and I tend to think alike at times. It's from long association." I personally didn't think they thought much alike at all, but said nothing, not wanting to anger my liege again. Imrahil leaned back suddenly against the book cases, his earlier ire gone. He looked weary and a little sad. Feeling an odd compulsion to comfort him, I approached him and laid an apologetic hand upon his arm. He flinched, and looked at me with what could only be called misery in his eyes.
"I know you mean no harm by it, but I must ask," and his voice was deathly soft, "that until the day you can come to me with an open heart and without my nephew or Elrohir upon your mind, that you do not touch me."
Shocked, I froze for a moment, then drew back. He sighed and in a more normal tone asked, "Are we finished here, Hethlin? For I have to go to a state dinner this evening, and should begin to get ready."
Immediately, I bowed and started for the door. "Yes, my lord. I thank you for your time, and apologize for forcing you to give your advice when you did not wish to."
Imrahil pulled a book from the shelf at random, and held it unseeing, long fingers stroking the cover. "It is all right, Hethlin. It seems I was a little more impartial than I thought I was capable of. I'm really quite impressed with myself, if you must know. Good night."
"Good night, my lord." And I left him no more settled in my mind, but much better informed than I had been. And feeling a strange sort of ache in my heart.