2010 HASA Birthday Stories
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Imhiriel's 2010 Birthday Presents: 6. Junior Diplomacy - Gilraen
A young prince has much to learn. Swordsmanship and fair speech; The skill of reading and the art of riding; The history of a city and a kingdom (or two); How to lead, who to trust.
But today he is on holiday in the garden of Gondor, lying on the grass, squishing mud between his toes in the stream running from the Steward's house. From above he sees the banner of the expected trade embassy come up the hillside, a black sun on a field of red. A tribe of Harad, he remembers, although he can't remember which. He knows he should return to clean up and be present for the greeting of the emissaries. He'd given poor Captain Gethron the slip hours ago, after all; but the wind is so soft and the sun is so warm, and it would be difficult to sneak into the house unnoticed.
He wakes to the murmur of the stream and the sound of footsteps, and a wave of such terrible certainty that he is in trouble. And indeed, at not twelve paces and closing is the Steward's heir, the silver circlet on his head reflecting the afternoon sun. Behind him walks what looks to be a very wrinkled, very colorful pillowcase, but as his vision sharpens he realizes that it is, in fact, a boy a little smaller than himself. "Found him at last!" Elboron shouts, thumping him on the shoulder. "And in the best spot, too." He sits up, opens his mouth and can't quite find the apology he's looking for, but the Prince of Ithilien smiles broadly. "Young Lord Sekandar here expressed an interest in seeing more of our grounds, and since you're practically as knowledgeable as any of my rangers, 'Dar, I thought perhaps you might be so good as to show him?" Eldarion nods, his face flushed. It isn't a request. Feeling feebler than he ever has in his life, he watches the older man take long strides back towards the house, leaving him alone with a strange southron whose only visible facial feature are his eyes.
Both boys stare at each other for a long moment, Eldarion feeling his disgrace all the more for his bare feet and sailor's pants in comparison to this strange, solemn little person wrapped in great quantities of embroidered silk. An advantage of appearance, as the Steward would say. "Your name is 'Dar also?" the other asks, rolling his vowels, in a tone that suggests that one of the Dars is clearly superior. "Prince Eldarion Telcontar, son of the King," he says, raising his chin and trying to regain some of the majesty of the West, although after the words are out of his mouth he regrets not having used more titles. His father certainly has enough.
The Southron's black eyes flick from Eldarion to the stream and back again. "But the Prince Elboron called you 'Dar," he says in the same clipped, too-precise westron.
"Oh, well, yes, I go by 'Dar sometimes, even though it's not my proper name," he replies, baffled.
"I would not brook such insolence in a liegeman," the other says, as though he's offering advice. Before Eldarion can answer, the other makes a great show of turning, his robes swirling, and begins to troop with surprising speed toward the bank and the pines.
"Well, Elboron's my friend," Eldarion counters, jogging a little to keep up as they get closer to the trees and the rocky part of the bank. How the Southron can move so fast in such garb is beyond him; but it's sickeningly obvious that he's been put at a disadvantage. So much for all the many hours learning to craft a royal mien for diplomacy. "And anyway, he's already a captain and much bigger than I am. If I gave him grief for that, he'd probably just laugh right before he tossed me in a horse trough." Privately he doubts the Steward's heir would go that far. Elboron would surely find some quieter, yet far more devious, means of checking his pride.
But the Southron halts and turns to look at Eldarion again, and after a long pause, nods fiercely. "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must," he says, placing his hand over his chest in some kind of salute. "I…suppose," Eldarion replies, now convinced that this is the most bizarre conversation he's ever had, but he attempts a smile. "Is that a wise saying from," he struggles for a moment, and then finishes rather lamely, "the south?"
The other boy shakes his head, hugely, and it suddenly comes to Eldarion that gestures must be more important when one's expression can't be seen. "It is from a part of the story of the conqueror Ciryaher, and the brave defenders of Haradhur, which the An'kahl teaches us," he says. Suddenly he jumps at a loud screech, and almost trips over himself.
"Just the gulls," Eldarion quickly reaches out to help the boy regain his balance. He smiles again, to try to put him at ease. "They come up the river all the time."
"The An'kahl teaches us that Lord of Water transformed a prince into such a bird as he leapt from a cliff," Sekandar says, and it sounds oddly like a confession.
"Oh!" Eldarion brightens. "Ulmo did that to Elwing, too, after the destruction of Sirion."
"Is he among your heroes?" Sekandar's eyes widen, all poise forgotten. "Ours, that is, Amir Ghen was very valiant, the most valiant of men."
"Well, Elwing's a girl, but she and her husband Earendil are my favorites."
Very soon, the discovery of a terrible, duel plot by the sons of Feanor and the evil trickster Afrasiab requires them both to transform into gulls and aid Elwing's search for Earendil by chasing the flock to the Valinor on the other side of the stream. Then, of course, Earendil and Thorondor, the great syenah, have a dragon to slay, and by the time the red sun sets on the darkened battlefield, a total, if unfortunately muddy, victory is in place.
After six days, the embassy departs, neither side having achieved much of anything; and that evening the Steward invites the young Prince to his study to play chess. Just four moves in, Eldarion cannot escape the sense that he is being toyed with. Even his mother has lost to the Steward before, so he should have been routed instantly. But the game goes on, and the Steward begins to ask Eldarion about his adventures of the last week with Sekandar, and he himself speaks of the stubbornness and distrust that hampered the negotiations.
What I don't understand, sir," Eldarion asks, "is why, when we haven't ever moved to expand our borders, the Haradrim are still braced against an Imperial Gondor."
The Steward smiles, rocking a ruhk back and forth with his finger. "Unfortunately, my Prince, our history suggests one will come, even if it is not our intention now. Harad remembers the ship kings with less kindness than we do."
"True, sir, but in our recent history, we haven't done anything like that. We've even gone to war with them against Khand," he replies, moving his knight to take a pawn.
"You haven't done anything. Yet," the Steward says, taking the knight with his own. "And we've fought just as many border skirmishes against them as we have for them. But I've spent the better part of my life fighting here in Ithilien, not the least against Haradrim. Your new friend Sekandar's grandfather, the old Sekandar, rode with Black Serpent, and was killed by King Theoden and his men, you know."
"I didn't," Eldarion says, unsure both of if he would have been better off not knowing that and if he ought to play his queen.
"I would find it rather extraordinary," says the Steward, "if a son could break bread with the daughter of his father's killer, in the land that his father died in, and not feel at least some revulsion or distrust. It would be just as extraordinary if a man who saw too many of his friends die at the hands of an invader did not at least contemplate being less fair than he might be to those people, when they needed something of his."
"Then, if we can't move past, well, the past, what's the point of any of it?" Eldarion asks, positioning his wizard to take the knight.
Faramir smiles, pauses for a moment, and then captures Eldarion's wizard with his ruhk. "We can only hope that by continuing to talk to each other we are able to forge new ties, less burdened by the grief of the past."
Looking down onto a much less populated chessboard and seeing a check in three, Eldarion suddenly remembers that it was the Steward who'd suggested he find a cool spot down by the stream, on a day that hot.
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