I had only a few days to get used to the idea of being a Captain. I’d been given an ample purse and provisions for the assignment, but only a single day to choose three men to form my new unit and make ready. That left little time for farewells. And of course, my mother took up more than her share, since I was forced to stand idly by in the Houses of Healing waiting for a moment she wasn’t speaking before I could tell her my news, then endure a lengthy exploration concerning rumors she’d heard of the dangers of northern lands, the vagaries of the noble families, and a dozen other matters before I could continue on. My father was much more to the point. “I am sorry you had to give up your ambition to be a gardener, son. I know how much you loved the roses of Imloth Melui. But, as I told you, there rises a shadow in the East that must be met with courage and blood, and you must bear steel and represent the honor of your family. I am proud of you, Ioreld.” I wondered how much honor there might be in a mission like this, but reminded myself silently that, if this is what the Steward thought necessary, then it must be for the glory of Gondor.
Is it a sign that a soldier thinks well of a Captain, that he would volunteer to join his unit after having previously been sent to die by that same Captain? To be sure, Darrien knew that death had been only an exercise, though he never stopped reminding me how much even a cloth-wrapped, blunted arrow-tip hurt when it struck you full-on in the stomach. (Though he always refused my offers to let him demonstrate it on me. No Captain should ever send one of his men to take an injury he would not himself take, not even in a training exercise.) But he must realize it could mean I would do the same on the field of battle, if it came to that, and still he was the first to volunteer. Elemir and Radolf I selected based on their skills, and I did not admit it aloud, but part of my decision rested on knowing that Elemir was a fine camp cook. Given the particulars of this mission, that might actually prove a life-saver.
Thus far we had stayed at barracks and garrisons on the road through Lossarnach and all the way to the Bay of Belfalas, and the route I had planned would have us retracing these steps, then making our way around the White Mountains and through Gondor and Rohan for several weeks before we would reach more dangerous lands. But the sight of Dol Amroth was welcome, for it was a beautiful city full of cheer. Song wafted from the Harper’s Court through the paved avenues, and ever-present was the burbling of water in the many fountains, and the calling of swans. The masts of great ships creaked in the wind, and the sun on marbled colonnades was a spectacle for even the most tired of eyes. My soldiers were looking forward to having one night, though only one, where they could find a pub and… do the sorts of things soldiers did in a pub on the night before a long mission in dangerous lands. Things it was best not to think too much about, most likely.
I had no such rest awaiting me in Dol Amroth, though. Before me waited the first task of my first assignment, and it would likely be the most challenging, and the one on which the most depended. How well I handled this would set the tone for the entire journey. On the morrow I would meet my charge. My stomach was in knots thinking of it, and a part of me longed for something simpler and less harrowing, like perhaps a charge into dozens of screaming, sword-swinging Corsairs.
There were those who said that the daughter of the Prince had elven blood — and if there were those who said it, you can be sure that my mother repeated it now and then — and she surely had the look of the elven about her. There was no such air about her father, Prince Imrahil, for though he was tall and fair, a figure of grace and authority, he came by it from the blood of long-lost Númenor, not from any distance ancestry of the Eldar. Though I had dwelled these last four years in the White City at the sixth level (a place of some prestige, earned by my mother’s position in the Houses of Healing), even I was struck dumb by the grandeur of the Great Hall of Dol Amroth, with nearly as many fountains and swans as outside in the Court of the Fount, but even more so by the Prince and his daughter. I bowed deeply as I awaited the Prince reading the orders I had been sent with.
He read slowly, thoughtfully, and then pondered long before he spoke. “I see,” he said at last, and then more silence. I could tell that Lothíriel waited even more anxiously, as she had not yet seen the orders, but if she thought best to bide her time and wait for her father to speak, then doubly so for me. When he finally continued, it was in a low and measured voice, mellifluous and clear. “I have seen myself that the men of Umbar grow bold. Long have they envied our lands and gnawed at the hurt of their losses, wishing for a day they could strike us down and seize Gondor for their own, but always they could see their might was nowhere near a match for ours. They have made many raids in these past months, raids surprising both in their daring and in their apparent aimlessness — sacrificing many men to capture a place they could not hold, or to sneak into a town they then abandoned. Perhaps it is as your master-at-arms says, that they have simply been gathering intelligence.”
At this, Lothíriel could stay silent no longer. “Father, what does the scroll say?” she asked impatiently. “What brings this young Captain to our city? Do we face war?”
“In time, daughter,” the Prince said. “Send word to your cousin Shadryn that she is to dine with us this night, and have the cooks prepare a banquet. The Captain will also be dining with us, where he will have his chance to meet the lady and tell her of her fate.” Though he spoke with certainty, he also had a smile in his eyes as he turned to me and said, “I do not envy you this charge, Captain.”