Valar, how I hated that song! The tune was innocuous enough, a sprightly thing that was a sea chantey commonly sung down by the docks. But Súrion had written new lyrics for it, lyrics that ran:
Go back to the farm, go back to the fold,
Go back to the kitchen and do as you're told!
Go back to the hoe and the churn and the loom,
For no Swan Knight ever had need for a womb!
Wash dishes, sweep floors, do sewing and knitting,
For those are the tasks that for women are fitting!
The waging of war is for men alone,
So give it up, woman, and get you on home!
There were other verses, numerous ones that speculated on exactly what sort of favors I had done to whom to get me this position. But these stanzas were the ones that were sung most often, sung or whispered or muttered at me whenever the other esquires thought they could get away with it. And it made me twitch. I knew that it should not, I knew that I should disregard it, but it was the crowning straw on this camel's back. The endless vicious pranks, Captain Andrahar's determined attempts to batter me into the ground and his obvious contempt for me, all the studies which were so confusing and which I was having trouble with, with no one I could ask for help-they all added up to a sum of sheer misery. The song just seemed to summarize that all, and as my first two months at Dol Amroth stretched into a eternity of desolation, I grew to absolutely hate it. Even the tune was enough to make me flinch after a time, and I heard that often enough from other, innocent sources, servants whistling or maids singing about their work.
To make matters worse, Súrion was caroling it one day as the lot of us came up from the list and encountered Prince Amrothos heading down to town on some errand. Prince Imrahil's youngest son was an odd duck, 'twas said, a scholar interested in all sorts of things that no one else was, and there were some who thought it unseemly that he had not lifted a sword in Gondor's defense when both his brothers had. But I knew, for Faramir had told the Rangers he had left behind that day, of the Witch-King's attack on Osgiliath, and how it was Amrothos who had figured out how to bring the bridge down (or rather, to blow it up!), and thereby save Gondor from an earlier invasion than it might have suffered otherwise. He had swum out under the bridge in the middle of that attack to place his charges, and I for one had no doubt of his courage-the Rangers had lost near half their number in that battle.
Other than that, my only encounters with Amrothos had been a brief and civil exchange with the young prince when his family had returned to Minas Tirith to greet their father right after the War and sitting close to him at the court where Aragorn made Faramir the Prince of Ithilien. As far as I knew, he didn't care about me one way or the other. So it was dismaying to see his usual sleepy-eyed, abstracted expression suddenly flare into fury as he listened to the song. His glance crossed mine for a moment, almost daunting as his father's, then he turned and continued on his errand, while I sank further into despair.
Even the royal family does not want me here!
We esquires ate our dinner early, in a dining room that was set aside for us, before the ones who had evening service in the hall for dinner went forth. These were usually straightforward occasions of young men with big appetites stuffing food into their faces as quickly as possible, but a couple of nights later there was a change.
Lord Perhinel, who oversaw our domestic assignments, addressed us before we sat down to eat. "The pages will serve in hall tonight, for you all are to have a treat which I am sure is undeserved. Prince Amrothos wishes to sing for you after dinner." This announcement was greeted with some curious muttering, from which I determined that this was not a usual sort of thing. But there were no complaints from anyone-getting out of two hours of tedious duty on your feet after a hard day of arms training made the esquires well-disposed to listen to anyone, even if it was someone who needed a captive audience to perform!
So everyone ate their fill and were in good humor when the prince showed up just as we were finishing the dried cherry tarts. He'd gone to some pains to amend his usually untidy appearance this evening and the harp he held was worth a small fortune, glossy and inlaid in an intricate pattern of different sorts of woods and mother-of-pearl. He settled himself on a chair at the head of the table.
"I thought you all might like to hear some of the music I picked up at Minas Tirith when I was there last," he announced, and with no further ado, swung into his first song.
I remembered being told that Amrothos was a musician, but he was surprisingly good! An excellent tenor voice, and he knew how to strum that harp! Esquires who might have been willing to sit through almost anything to get some rest, found themselves clapping and cheering at the end of each song. The prince had chosen his selections well-they were all martial songs about the Ring War and the battle for Minas Tirith. Several of them mentioned Faramir.
So I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but I was nonetheless, and had to sit frozen and red-faced when Amrothos started singing the song that had been written about me saving Faramir on the Pelennor. Without waiting for a response from his audience, he then segued directly into an older song about me shooting my first Mûmak and helping to win a battle for Boromir.
He ended the second song and silence fell. His gaze, very intent and focused, swept over the esquires and settled upon Súrion, who shifted slightly in his seat. "Do you know," he said quietly, "that I didn't find any songs about Súrion the Slayer when I was in Minas Tirith? No one seems to know of his deeds. But here is what Súrion has to say about a hero of the Ring War…" and he began to sing the song, the whole song, every scurrilous verse I had ever heard and even a couple of new ones I hadn't. When he sang it, I could listen without dismay and without that inner clenching that had become habitual. And I noticed as I did so that, whether it had been Súrion's intention or not, some of those verses were insulting to others than myself. The King and Prince Imrahil and Faramir did not come off particularly well in them, what with the inferences about my having slept myself into this position. Prince Amrothos sang out loud and clear what had been sung softly in the shadows, he bludgeoned Súrion and the other esquires with their own words and they squirmed uncomfortably. And as he did so, Lord Perhinel's face darkened considerably and I realized that he had been totally unaware this was going on.
Amrothos finished at last, and a deep silence fell over the room as that penetrating gaze swept over it once more. "This was the last time that song will be heard in Dol Amroth, is that clear?" The command in his voice was surprisingly every bit as compelling as his father's and was swiftly answered by a chorus of subdued assent from the esquires. "And there will be no others from this source! The insults to the King, the Prince of Ithilien and my own family aside, it is doggerel. The rhymes scan poorly and the author cannot even compose his own music. It is proof that esquires should stick to their study of arms and leave the music to those who can make it properly. Furthermore, such insult tendered to one of this company is a violation of the vows you all made to do no harm to your brothers. Or sister in this instance. You are dismissed!" The esquires scrambled to their feet and hastened to leave the room. I started to as well, but was stopped by a gesture from Amrothos. "Bide, esquire Hethlin."
When everyone else had gone, Amrothos looked at Lord Perhinel. "Well, Perhinel? What have you to say about this?"
"That I am sorry, your highness," Perhinel said immediately. "I truly had no idea that this was going on-they have apparently been careful not to sing it in any place where I would hear." Amrothos gave him a measuring stare for a moment, then seemed satisfied. "Very well then. But be more mindful in the future, my lord. My brothers and sister and I are not unaware of what an upheaval this is, but we wish it to go smoothly. The King has commanded this and Dol Amroth obeys."
"Yes, my lord." He paused for a moment, as if contemplating an uncomfortable duty. "I will have to inform Captain Andrahar about what passed here tonight, my lord. You know that he does not like anyone interfering with the esquires."
Amrothos lifted his chin. "I am hardly anyone, Perhinel!" he declared loftily. "But by all means, tell him. And then you can send him straight to Elphir and myself if he wishes to complain. Elphir knows what I did this night, and he approves. He was not much pleased about that song either. You are dismissed." The Swan Knight bowed and departed, his expression unhappy in the extreme. I didn't envy him, caught between the royal family and Captain Andrahar!
"Why, sir?" I asked quietly when Perhinel had gone. Amrothos looked surprised for a moment, then shook his head in dismay.
"That you even have to ask that question shows what a mess has been made of this! First of all, let us say that I know personally more than a little about what it is to defy societal expectations. Secondly, do you truly believe that the family does not want you here?"
"I didn't know one way or the other about the rest of you, highness" I said honestly, "although I think that the Princess likes me."
"You saved Faramir for us, and I'm not just talking about the Pelennor! He used to write me letters and tell me things. I didn't tell the others because it was written in confidence, but I knew how unhappy he was. The way Uncle Denethor treated him…his Rangers were the only thing that gave him a feeling of accomplishment. He'd write me and the same half-dozen names would come up, over and over. Angrim and Anborn. Damrod and Lorend. And most of all, Mablung and Hethlin." I blushed. "I did not know you were a woman, he didn't tell me that, but he'd write about how you were learning Elvish and the books you read together. Those were always the happiest parts of his letters, the parts about the Rangers and the moves we were making in our chess game."
"You were playing chess with him?"
"Oh, yes. We had a game going that lasted a couple of years. I won that one and then we started another right before things got bad."
"So that was what was going on!" I exclaimed. Amrothos gave me an inquiring look and I explained. "The Captain would set the chessboard up with the pieces in a particular way sometimes, but he wouldn't ask anyone to play. He'd just sit in his little room and stare at it, sometimes for a couple of hours at a time. He'd move a piece, then put it back, then move another. Sometimes he'd do this for a couple of days before he'd take it back down. I wondered if he was replaying some old game in his mind. I didn't know that was you!"
Amrothos grinned. "Yes, that was me!" The grin went away as quickly as it had come. "I was always so relieved to get one of his letters, even though I knew that he might very well already be dead and I not know, even as I was reading it and plotting my next move. I knew you before I ever met you, Hethlin, and I was not surprised at all when Father told me what had happened on the Pelennor."
"You are very kind, sir."
"Not as a rule," Amrothos said, and strummed a chord or two idly. "But I like to give credit where credit is due." He looked back up at me. "We know that being here wasn't your idea, but we can help if you'll just let us. I don't want to insult you, but I've heard you're having trouble with the academic end of things. I would be glad to help with that." I stared at him, astonished, and he nodded. "If you've got study time in the evenings, then come to the family library instead of the one the esquires use. I'll see to it that it's known you've got permission to be there. I'll tutor you and 'Thiri says she'll come and sit with us and work on her needlework and be chaperone."
The esquires would never dare to bother me there. The help aside, Amrothos had just offered me an precious hour or two of sanctuary almost every evening. And it was such a relief to realize that I was not alone, that I had friends here after all! I felt my eyelids prickle and blinked a couple of times.
Swallowing hard, I said, "Thank you, sir. I would be glad of the help, particularly with the maths. I know that you are very good at those. And please thank the Princess for me."
He nodded. "I will be glad to. Dismissed, esquire."
I bowed and departed, leaving Imrahil's oddest youngest in the room alone. And as I walked to my quarters, a song began to sound in my mind in time with my steps. A different song, a song I liked much better:
From Belfalas to Rauros tall,
The grace of Gondor gifts us all
With strength to stand and not to fall; Fair Gondor shall abide.
End note: The song above is a stanza from Gondor Shall Abide, which Altariel wrote and which first appeared in her most excellent story What The Thunder Said. I've quoted it before, so I don't think she'll mind me using it, but if she does, she knows where to find me.